Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ten quick rebuttals

I want to preface this blog post by saying that I have not, not at all, jumped on the “free community college” bandwagon.  There are a lot of questions I would have before I’d support such a thing, and this despite the fact that my two oldest daughters are currently attending a community college for their first two years of education.  I’d want to know who would qualify, how it would be paid for, and how much state and local control would remain.  It would be a bad idea to federalize education at the community college level, for instance, and there are other bureaucratic pitfalls that would have to be avoided.

Having said all of that, I have to react to this incredibly horrible article a point at a time because it just cries out for that kind of treatment:

1. Stealing?  Really?  The author, Joy Pullmann, claims that “free” community college would be “stealing” from hard working taxpayers (with the implication that the money would go to the slackers and leeches who haven’t managed to earn their own way).  If that’s the case, though, then the government is also “stealing” from me when they collect my property taxes and other taxes, which go to fund local public schools, because my kids have never gone to the public schools.  Why should I pay for other people’s kids to go to school?  Simple: we, as a nation, tend to think it’s a good idea to have an educated population.

2. In her second point Pullmann says that no one owes anybody a college education.  This is, technically, true.  And nobody owes anybody public roads, public libraries, public parks, etc., either, but we sort of think these are nice things to have and nobody but the most extreme libertarians seem to think otherwise.  If an educated populace is a benefit to society, why shouldn’t society create a pathway for those students for whom even a community college education is an otherwise impossible goal?  The hypothetical eighteen-year-old Pullman discusses, the one who has been sponging off of his parents and grandparents for the last 18 years, is not the one who needs help with community college--it’s the kids who have grown up with single parents or in foster homes or in dire poverty, the ones working while taking classes and hoping to be able to keep paying for it all.  Pullmann may not know any kids like that, but my daughters have met some of them, and there are probably some at her local community college if she would go and talk to them.

3. The “entitlements” buzzword: why is it that so many people can make anything sound crappy and expensive (to use Pullmann’s terms) by calling it an entitlement?  I think she makes a big mistake by lumping the G.I. Bill in with her other list of complaints, though: the G.I. Bill has helped a lot of veterans go to college (and I say this as a wife of a veteran who served, most unfortunately, during a time when the G.I. Bill was not in force and who had to figure out how to pay for his own education after having served overseas for four years first).  If a “Community College Bill” had the same effect as the G.I. Bill on our nation, it would likely boost productivity and income and help more people get ahead--and what’s wrong with that?

4. Pullman cites the low graduation rate of community college grads.  Her thinking seems to be that these kids are wasting their time in college and should just give up.  That may be true for a handful of them, but I think she’s missing a key point: lots of kids who don’t finish community college don’t manage to finish precisely because they can’t afford to pay for it.  But we’ll revisit that point later.

5. This one’s a head-scratcher: Pullmann says that in the good old days an eighth-grade graduation was better than today’s community college degree.  I might tend to agree a bit, so long as we leave computer  classes and technology courses out of the equation, but the real question is: so what?  Educational standards have slipped across the board.  You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew, Latin and Greek to go to Harvard or Yale anymore, either.  Nostalgia for the past isn’t going to help actual college students in the year 2015.

6. Pullmann thinks we shouldn’t “trap” kids in school longer.  Oh, right.  Because so many kids are graduating from high school and stepping straight into lucrative careers these days.  Somehow I doubt Pullmann views the kids going to Ivy League schools and pursuing masters’ degrees or doctorates as being “trapped” in school.  But, hey, those kids have earned the right to be in those schools by virtue funds, or something.

7. This one made me laugh out loud.  Everybody can afford community college already?  Everybody?  Really?  I know we’ve been able to help our girls with the local community college tuition, but it helps that they live here at home and that they’ve earned scholarships and found campus jobs and so forth. The part that really made me chuckle was this quote: “A 40-hour, minimum-wage job over 12 weeks of summer will earn a tax-free $3,480 (tax-free because no one earning this little pays taxes).”  Leaving aside her ignorance about the fact that taxes including Social Security will, indeed, be confiscated from that income, there is the total breathtaking ignorance about how easy or possible it is for a college student to get a summer job where he or she will get anywhere near 40 hours a week!  And then there’s her equally blithe assumption that students will be able to work fifteen hours a week or so while taking classes--has she never heard of the scourge called “on-demand scheduling” that forces college students to skip classes in order to take hours the boss demands at the last minute? It’s not like a college student working off-campus can go in and say, “Here are the hours I can’t ever work because I’m in classes then.”  In this day and age, the hiring manager will just shrug and say, “I can find plenty of people who are available 24/7--why should I bother hiring you?” and show them the door.  My girls have known kids who have had to choose between staying in school and keeping a job.  The job usually wins.

8.  No one would be happier than I would be if the “college bubble” really were about to burst.  But with companies still demanding huge increases in the number of H1-B visas because they allegedly can’t find qualified Americans to do technical work, I wouldn’t advise any young students to place their career eggs in this “college bubble about to burst” basket.  I am cynical enough to believe that some high-tech companies may be trying to convince American students that “credentialing” is all that matters, so they can turn around and go to Congress and say (with their hands out) “Why, look!  The number of Americans graduating in tech fields has dropped yet again!” at which point the next wave of cheap third-world programmers can come in on visa waves and take the jobs Americans “can’t” do--because the Americans believed the hype about credentialing and never got a computer degree.

9. Pullmann claims that the next wave of job growth will happen in fields that don’t need college degrees.  If you follow the links in her piece, you will see these new hot jobs listed: janitor, personal care aide, various low-level health care workers, retail sales jobs.  These are not careers that will support a family--these are jobs that will continue to pay rock-bottom salaries to people who--like many of the workers at big-box stores--have to apply for welfare and Medicaid just to make ends meet.  How does it help the economy to create a new serf class instead of helping young people have a better future?

10.  Last, but not least: Pullmann is right that we’re hugely in debt, as a nation.  Perhaps we could decrease that debt significantly by ending corporate welfare and investing in our children’s futures instead.  I’d be willing to listen to some ideas along those lines.

It may yet end up that fully funding the first two years of college education for those students with good grades who choose to attend community colleges will be an unworkable idea.  But I am amazed at the “let them eat cake!” attitudes displayed by Pullmann in her piece.  Anybody who thinks that community college is something all young Americans can easily afford and that the poor already get for free (as she says) has probably never talked to students at a local community college.

And when our country has made a college degree a requirement for even entry-level jobs, it is rather cruel to prefer the status quo, which makes college all but mandatory for those who want a better life than endless minimum wage jobs without benefits, yet all but impossible for those students whose parents are among the working poor.  After all, if these seven countries can manage to charge little or nothing for college, why is it that in America college is still often seen as a privilege for the rich rather than a necessity for the many?


Clayton Hennesey said...

Red, how would you solve the many problems you've listed, beginning with the economics of higher education?

priest's wife said...

My oldest girls (14 and 15) attend a semi-independent study high school that is connected to the local community college- they have to take at least 1 college class a semester. This semester they are both taking 3. There are 6 sections of the Intro to Psych class. Books for this one class one semester range in price from $169 to $289 plus tax....are books going to be free, too?

John InEastTX said...

Do a search on "Lucky Ducky Tom the dancing bug" - something about them reminds me of Joy Pullman.

Clayton Hennesey said...

Red, I see you haven't done anything more with this. Maybe this will help.

If you wanted to lower the price users paid for illegal drugs from a Mexican cartel, how would you go about it? Give the users more money to spend? What influence do you think that would have on the price, the factor that seems to be at the core of your objections.

Red Cardigan said...

Clayton: I’ve been busy. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner.

I don’t think it’s up to me to “fix” higher education. But here’s the system we have now:

The very, very rich can send their children to any colleges/universities they like. Their children can also afford unpaid internships, networking with their equally-rich peers, and other semi-secret paths to excellent careers.

The less rich compete for the rest of the slots at the most expensive schools. A handful of poor kids can go to those schools by virtue of scholarship or being the right race/gender/etc., or both.

The middle class is, as usual, screwed. We earn “too much” (many of us) for our kids to get really good financial aid, but we don’t earn anywhere near enough to compete with people who look at, say, the average 30K/year of some of the Catholic colleges and sniff, “That’s cheap! Who but a total loser *can’t* afford that?” Few middle class kids ever get into the “best” schools, and the ones who do end up drowning in debt.

The truth is that middle class kids can’t afford somewhere between $80,000 and $150,000 for a four year degree (let alone the prices the top schools charge). And that’s before we even get to the new problem that a four-year degree is being looked down at in many professions as the bare minimum, with masters’ or doctorates preferred before you can start at an entry level job.

HOWEVER, and this is important, it is now considered NECESSARY for your children to have at least a bachelor’s degree as this bare minimum qualification to join the “good job club.” Don’t get that degree, and you’re looking--so goes the narrative, anyway, and it’s a reality for many--at a lifetime of uncertain employment at slave wages with few to no benefits.

Meanwhile, the seven countries in the article I linked to manage to charge little to nothing for a college education for their young people. It’s almost as though they think that investing in their young people instead of, say, building more prisons is a good idea.

I’m afraid your drug analogy is too silly. College is not illegal--just expensive. However, just playing along: what would happen to the cartels if the government started handing out those drugs for free? What will happen to the education monoliths if a cooperative effort between federal, state and local governments creates a path to college that will allow many students to obtain an associate’s degree at relatively little cost?

Clayton Hennesey said...

Red, I'm sorry you found my drug cartels example silly. Once you understand how idiosyncratic revenue inputs into cartel- (whether drug or educational or government) controlled markets affect prices (they raise them), you'll understand the nature of your problem and how to address fixing it.

In the meantime, best of wishes with the efforts you're making now.

The Troll said...

I'm not entirely sure extending "bare minimum" education to 15 years (which is what two free years of community college would ultimately mean) is the answer to our economic woes. Part of our problem is that we've accepted the idea that there should be "good" jobs and "wage slave" jobs - that the janitor should have to scrimp to but groceries at Wal Mart, but that the sales team should be able to take expensive vacations in Hawaii. Fact is, both jobs are indispensable for the business to function. You can't run a country on a workforce composed exclusively of executives and managers, and I don't understand why we should accept the premise that anyone who wants to prosper should work those kinds of jobs, and everyone else should have to settle for rock bottom wages.

The only answer I can see is decentralizing the economy: removing blocks to small/family businesses, and requiring minimum partial employee ownership of larger companies.

scotch meg said...

But most of these countries also screen out many young people, who will never even have a chance to go to college. Many are channeled away from college at a surprisingly early age - 11 or 12 - and will finish school in a non-college-prep track at age 16. Yes, the system helps them find jobs better than ours does, but heaven help your late-blooming kid if s/he would rather go to college than into a trade. Even the kids in the college prep track are further sifted through national exams at the end of high school. So, yes, college is free - but severely rationed. At least in our system you can (in many states) combine community college and public university in such a way as to enable broader access and more of a chance at further education.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Perhaps its time for a new Pullman Boycott.