Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Free Vs. Focused? The Conversation Continues

President Obama’s proposal to provide up to $3,800 of free tuition at community colleges has received wide-ranging consideration. From editorials in publications like our own Rome Sentinel, to Op-Eds by Tom Hanks and others in the New York Times, the proposal has grabbed a fair amount of attention in the past two weeks.

Hanks wrote a wonderful piece about his community college days at Chabot College.  The thousands of responses from community college alumni have been inspiring to read for all of us who work in community colleges throughout the country. We see the financial challenges of our students every day, as they try to overcome financial hurdles and secure a college credential in pursuit of a better life.

From the student loan debt figures to the individual stories of college students today, the need for bold proposals and new thinking is easily justified. Consideration should be given to the reality that free public education through high school served as a catalyst to transform this nation from an agricultural society to a modern industrial one and likewise, the bar must be raised through an additional two years of public education to fully move us into the information age that continues to rapidly transform our society.

However, the recent editorials, media coverage, and responses are informing an increasingly nuanced view of the President’s proposal. Countless research studies show that human beings try harder and perform better when we have some skin in the game compared to the potential complacency that comes when something is free. With 80% of community college students nationwide working full or part time while enrolled, many would argue just managing their busy lives is “skin in the game” enough to warrant this expansion of public education.

The dialogue on this proposal should not focus solely on tuition, given that it’s covered for the neediest students through current federal and state financial aid programs.  Conversation is needed to go beyond student access to include attention to student completion. More direct research on student completion demonstrates the importance of grit and motivation (Tough, 2012) as well as attachment and involvement (Astin, 1999) for students to actually graduate. The President’s proposal is a big idea that has many sides to it – it should be just the beginning. What should the parameters really be? What should we mean by “responsible students” who would be eligible? All of this should be discussed, debated, and decided.

Unfortunately, the largest issue of all is the lack of productive dialogue in Washington. The proposal was rolled out with all the trappings of a “too good to be true” late night television commercial that prompted criticisms of this administration, calling this extension of public education a free entitlement. Rather than all parties recognizing the need, affirming the realities, and refining the idea together in order to help our society move forward, political gridlock rules the day!

It’s a shame that the needs of students and employers alike are trampled under the dysfunction of this country’s modern-day politics. For our part, community colleges will continue to do what we’ve always done—navigate the winds of change to produce the best possible outcomes for our students and local economies.