Some Early Thoughts on President Obama’s Proposal for Free Education at U.S. Community Colleges

I should begin by stating that I am in favor of any proposal that provides free higher education at public colleges and universities. In fact, I am in favor of any proposal that reduces the cost to students without compromising the quality of instruction.

I think that the president’s proposal will help community colleges because their funding has generally been hurt in two waves: first by the loss of federal stimulus dollars in 2011 and then by the introduction of performance-based funding in many states.

Completion rates for associates degrees are generally lower than those for baccalaureate degrees, and that reality should not surprise anyone who gives it any thought. Many students enrolling at community colleges are seeking technical training due to volatility in the job market, and so their reason for enrolling may disappear with some change in the job market. Moreover, many of those students have issues with academic preparedness for any level of postsecondary education.

Most performance funding also does not take into account many of the types of education that community colleges provide—various types of training that do not lead to associate degrees or even certificates.

So, on the whole, I think that both students and community colleges will largely benefit from the President’s proposal because it does link the maintenance of a decent GPA to the federal funding.

My major concern about the proposal is that it does not seem to make a distinction between technical and pre-baccalaureate programs. In effect, I have the same concerns here as I do with proposals for allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate programs.

A quarter of a century ago, when I was entering the academic job market, we were advised to consider full-time positions at community colleges because of the contraction in the number of positions available at universities. But that boom in full-time hiring at community colleges was very short-lived. Today, the proportion of full-time to part-time or adjunct faculty at most community colleges is very lopsided to the part-time side. On average in my state, full-time faculty account for 15% to 25% of the total faculty at community colleges. In addition to teaching more courses and courses with higher class sizes than full-time faculty at universities, those full-time faculty are typically responsible for directing or coordinating programs—that is, for supervising all of the adjunct faculty teaching in those programs.

In short, they are already grossly over-worked, and I don’t see how adding many more pre-baccalaureate courses and sections of courses, never mind two full years of baccalaureate courses, is tenable.

So, to be very clear, I am not saying that most community-college faculty or adjunct faculty are not qualified to teach pre-baccalaureate or baccalaureate-level courses. In fact, I know that many community-college faculty and many adjunct faculty have Ph.D.’s, have substantial professional experience inside and outside of academia, and are excellent teachers.

What I am saying is that I don’t see how substantially increasing the enrollment of pre-baccalaureate students at community colleges will do anything but increase the demands on those faculty who are already the most over-extended, the most over-worked, and the least compensated for their work. I worry that the enrollment increases that will almost certainly result from the President’s proposal will simply amplify the exploitation of faculty who deserve full-time positions or who deserve full-time positions with much more reasonable workloads.

So, unless there are financial incentives or requirements for community colleges to hire many more full-time faculty, I don’t see how the quality of instruction for pre-baccalaureate students is not going to suffer and then be reflected in lower completion rates as those students transfer into universities.

As I have argued in other posts, increased completion rates are meaningful only if the same standards, if the same quality of instruction, is maintained.

I suspect that what may work better for students in technical programs may turn out to be inadequate for pre-baccalaureate students.

And since this proposal from the President is an almost singular effort against the long, ongoing trend of making students bear more and more of the cost of post-secondary education, I think that it is extremely important that it succeed—that it be thought out carefully so that some successes are not lost in the inevitable, politicized attention to some salient failures.

And if baccalaureate completion rates fall, those numbers will almost certainly outweigh any increases in the numbers of associates degrees being awarded.

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