I’ve often imagined what I would say to President Obama if we were to meet. I have to, because I wasn’t prepared when I met Bill Clinton, and while trying to compliment him, I completely insulted him instead (long story). So in my case, it’s best to be prepared. And this week, the president’s “College Affordability Bus Tour” (part of his “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class” agenda) and his plans to tie student funding to graduation rates have me hopping mad. So even if I never do meet President Obama, here’s what someone—anyone—needs to tell him:
“Mr. President, with all due respect, you don’t know a thing about what really goes on at American colleges, especially community colleges.”
Let me explain. The constant criticism coming from the president and others is about the rising cost of tuition over the past thirty years. He blames this squarely on the colleges themselves, and describes higher education as “an undisciplined system” (clearly, he’s never attended a budget meeting in which faculty are told that valuable programs that students need have to be cut.) He blames the colleges themselves instead of placing the critique of college costs within a comprehensive picture that includes the increase in the cost of everything associated with modern learning, especially the expanded technological needs of higher education, as well as the more than 25% drop in state support for higher education from 1990 to 2010. Instead, the president suggests cost-cutting, not increasing support.
Now, the president wants to “rate” colleges based on their affordability and the number of graduates they produce. From the President’s speech:
“families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” and points out examples of states that are “testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll, but how many of them graduate and how well did they do.”
This is a recipe for disaster.
Tying student funding to graduation rates does not take into account the zillion factors that actually determine whether or not a student graduates. And it will create a system in which the degree—not the learning it represents—is more important, because the more degrees issued, the higher the rating, and the higher the rating, the more students—and their money—will flow into a college’s coffers.
Been there, done that. I taught at a for-profit college for three years. Pumping out the degrees made money—lots of money. The college’s relentless recruitment drive promised students that they could get a degree on their own terms. In many cases, they were right—but not because the students actually earned their degrees. Rather, instructors, especially adjunct, were pressured to give credit for any student work, regardless of its quality. Administrators cooperated with this; after all, as long as students were kept on the books, the money would keep rolling in from their loans and grants.
Everyone is exploited within such a system: the student whose diploma-mill degree is largely useless, the faculty whose ethics are compromised just so they can pay back their student loans, and the taxpayers who foot the bill for the loans and grants that currently line the pockets of the for-profit college shareholders. Sadly, the President’s plan merely offers additional incentives for this type of behavior. After all, my former school graduates enough students every year to fill a sports arena. Even the one part of the plan that might work, tying school funding to post-graduation employment, will be undermined by the emphasis on degrees, because students pushed through to graduation no matter what their work quality generally don’t actually learn the skills they need to hold onto their jobs. This means that student loan debt and default will increase under this plan.
Still, for-profit colleges might do well in this new formula the president plans. But it will spell disaster for schools like the community college where I teach.
Community college students often transfer to a four-year program before they have a chance to graduate, and community colleges then lose that student from their total number of graduates. (For more information on community college graduation rates, see Century’s report Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream.) In this new system, which is still barely sketched out, it’s possible that community colleges will be penalized because they succeed in keeping students learning no matter how long it takes, or are successful in fulfilling part of the community college mission, which is to provide a springboard to a four-year degree.
And let’s not forget that community colleges often serve some of the country’s least-prepared students. Every day, I walk into a class in which the students are a mixed bag of abilities, many of whom come from some of the Boston area’s poorest and least-funded public school systems. Many of my students struggle with significant learning issues and find that community college is the only college they will find acceptance. For others, English is a second language. Still others struggle to balance work, family, and school.
For students like mine, graduation might not come in the nice little time frame the president would like to use to rate schools. It might not come at all. Yet I can’t begin to describe the joy that I see in my students not when they earn a degree (though there is joy there, certainly), but every day, when they learn new things, are engaged in thoughtful debate, when they feel, in every way, that they are working to improve the lives of themselves and their families. Yet these are the students the President would penalize by awarding more funding to schools that graduate more students, regardless of the quality of the education.
That’s why I think the President doesn’t really know what’s going on at American colleges. There are far too many variables that go into a student’s college experience to sum them up in a nice little formula, some tidy package that promises a good deal.
And I wish I could tell him that.