Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Free" college "for all"

This is another one of those proposals that will sound lovely on their surface to some, but which will have all kinds of unfortunate unintended consequences.

I GET that President Obama (a) Wants some kind of legacy that will make people "like" him again and (b) really and truly (probably) believes that college is not just the best but the only path to success.

However, this plan is just such a bad idea.

First of all: not everyone needs to go to college. Not everyone SHOULD go to college. There are a lot of careers out there, good careers, where something like an apprenticeship would work better. Or trade school. If I had a kid approaching college age, and he or she wasn't absolutely 100% sold on a particular career that required college (e.g., doctor, scientific researcher, teacher, engineer....) I'd suggest they consider a trade, like plumbing or electrical work. Because those are good jobs, they're needed jobs (Oh how happy I am to see my plumber when I need him!). They can't be outsourced....even college teaching, now, is in danger of being outsourced.

I wish "Dirty Jobs" had had more of a societal impact than it apparently did; one of the messages I got from the show is, "There's a ton of jobs out there that, while not glamorous, are decently paid and you can be happy working them." In fact, a lot of the people Mike Rowe interviewed seemed HAPPIER in their "dirty" job than the average executive, doctor, or teacher. (I suspect that the jobs that involve destroying stuff for a living are very therapeutic....)

But there are other issues:

1. You appreciate something less if you don't have to work for it. A man I know was a driver for a bottled-gas company. His route included a lot of different people, including some people who had essentially been "given" houses by the government. His comment was that the people who worked to pay for their houses, however modest that house may be, generally took better care of it than the people who were given the house outright.

I also see this to a certain degree in some of the students: the ones whose ways are being paid by a parent often are the ones who are here to do four more years of partying before they have to "grow up" and get a job. Or, I have students who take out multiple loans and kind of shrug and go, "The government will forgive them" or, in one case, "What? Are they gonna come after me for their money?" (Actually, yes they will, but whatever).

Disclaimer: My way was largely paid. When my paternal grandparents passed away, they owned a large amount of real estate which was sold and the money divided among the three sons of the family. My dad's plan was to invest it and use the proceeds to send my brother and me to school. (One of the other brothers bought a boat, and I think the other one bought a summer house and RV). But I knew that that money came from somewhere, and it was my dad's deciding that he didn't want the trappings of wealth but rather a secure life for his kids - so I worked hard and did my best not to squander that money.

2. This will funnel a lot of people not ready for college into college. It's a band-aid on a chest wound. What NEEDS to be done is have k-12 education reformed to the point where kids don't graduate from high school unable to read or do everyday math and who have no knowledge of the Constitution or the history of this nation and no understanding of basic physics, chemistry, or biology.... time was when a high school diploma was what you needed for many jobs. Now, a high school diploma is worth less than it was - and so now a bachelor's degree is required.

My fear is that, rather than preparing people better for the workplace, a college diploma will become as meaningless as a high school diploma currently is. (Some would say we're already there. I will say in my classes I fight like hell to keep standards high - with the blessing of my chair - and expect a lot of the students so hopefully they walk out of my class KNOWING something and BEING ABLE TO DO something)

We don't need more college grads, we need more high school grads who actually know something.

Also, funneling people not ready or not in the mindset for college will lead to problems with morale for the teachers/professors. Already, I know of schools where profs are regularly cycled OUT of the intro level non-majors class because it quickly becomes soul-deadening and you need a semester or two's respite before going in again. And it is distressing to deal with students who have trouble reading (not because of a learning disability but because they just have so little experience doing it). Or who don't know math that you remember learning in fifth grade (I have had that happen). Or who stop you dead and ask you to explain some ordinary word you just used that they don't know the meaning of.

The other issue is, if there's some kind of GPA required to keep the entitlement? That's gonna be ripe for grade inflation, and dozens of weepy, "But I need a C or else I lose my entitlement" students.

Already, I deal with way too many students who blame me for their poor performance and either try to bully me into giving them a grade they did not earn, or lay a guilt trip on me. I once had a student tell me I had "ruined their life" because they weren't going to get into Pharmacy school because I wasn't "giving" them an A in my class. Well, I sighed and rolled my eyes (this student was on the phone so they couldn't see me) and opened up my gradebook. And, lo and behold: they had failed to hand in four of the lab assignments. THAT'S why they failed to earn an A, and I told them as much. They weren't happy, of course, but I am still able to hold up my head.

And yeah, yeah: I'm tough enough to deal with the guilt-trippers and the criers. But I'd rather not. And having eight or ten people every semester's end do it is a drag, and it uses up time I could be using more productively.

But the thing is: sending people to college without giving them the "tools" they need is foolish. It doesn't matter whether that "tool" is basic math or if it's the ability to own up to their own mistakes; people who aren't ready for college won't magically become so just because it's free.

3. It's very likely not even all that necessary. Community colleges STRIVE to be affordable. Pell grants cover a great deal of the costs most places, and it still is possible to work and take classes-part time and pay for it all. Granted, you need to have a decent job, and decent jobs are harder to find than they once were - but even occasionally you hear of the person who clawed their way into the middle class by working at McDonald's and taking a class or two from a community college each semester, and they eventually earned a degree.....

4. This is a very personal concern, but: it will probably hurt schools like mine. We are NOT a community college, but we serve some of the same population. We're a small, four-year, regional public school. I am, by and large, proud of the job my university does: for a pretty unprepared incoming body (lots of kids from small rural areas, lots of kids from humble backgrounds, lots of "first-generation students,") we do a good job. A great many of our graduates (I mean, from my department) get jobs in their field and do pretty well. On good days, I feel like I'm performing a service because I'm helping people advance themselves and also preparing people to man the workforce.

But if they can go here, or go two years to a community college for "free," they're gonna do that - and our freshman classes will dwindle. (Mine almost didn't make this semester....) One of the worries I have, now that I have tenure (and so can't be fired unless I do something criminally stupid or totally stop trying) is that I could wind up being RIFfed if things get too bad - let go, because of "Reductions in Force" - in other words: enrollment has got so small we can't afford to keep you on.

I know that's unlikely as long as there's a Biology department because I teach a couple of pretty-core courses, but still.

5. This should probably be #1 but: Dammit, it's NOT "free"! Someone is paying for it. The government doesn't just magic money out of thin air - it comes out of the pockets of every working person in the nation. And one of my problems with a lot of governmental "charity" programs (as opposed to faith-based or grass-roots charities) is that all too often, someone in the government department that is "overseeing" the program is able to dip his or her hand into the cash stream - and skim some of that taxpayer money off. For whatever, whether it's to pay lobbyists to protect their job or whether it's for lavish workshops somewhere or "travel costs" that are over and above what anyone in the private sector would be allowed.

And, yeah yeah, people in faith-based or NGO charities can and sometimes do give into the temptation to skim....but there, more often than not, it's called embezzlement and its perpetrator winds up in prison.

So, what I hear when I hear about "free" community college: great, more money out of my pocket to send people to the schools that compete with us and to essentially tell those people that they are entitled to be educated just because they exist, and that they should also make a stink if they don't get the grades they want so they keep the entitlement. Lose-lose.

Yes, four-year colleges are often expensive, perhaps "too" expensive....I've addressed that before and I'll just note again that SOME of that expense comes because of governmental mandates about stuff where someone has to be hired in order to be sure the mandate is being complied with....

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