How to Bring More Low-Income Americans to a Bright Future

In order to lower the price of the president’s spending proposal, the Biden administration reportedly ditched the idea of ​​a tuition-free community college.

According to the Wall Street newspaperOpposition to two free years of community college has come not only from for-profit and private non-profit organizations, but also from public universities, fearing that undergraduates will complete their first two years in schools. 2 years.

Instead, these institutions favor the expanded Pell Grants, which would protect their enrollments and allow them to increase tuition and fees. But if a significant number of potential students spent their first two years at community college, they would be the losers.

What should you and I think? Is this an example of narrow institutional self-interest overshadowing the public good? Or does the position of public universities hold water?

To answer these questions, I turned to one of the smartest and most knowledgeable academics and seasoned senior administrators I know.

Alexandra Logue was previously executive vice-chancellor and director of the University of the City University of New York, the largest urban university and university system in the country. CUNY’s 25 campuses include 2- and 4-year institutions.

His answer is revealing and deserves to be quoted at length.

“As long as funding flows to licensing colleges based on enrollment, those colleges will do everything possible to protect those enrollments. Incentive systems need to be structured for the behavior you want, and a lot of people don’t want licensing colleges to lose their enrollments.

“A lot of people have talked about making the first two years of college free, instead of making community colleges free. This would likely lead to fewer objections from licensing colleges, as such a system would not be likely to drive students more to community colleges. Which would be good for reasons other than college income.

Professor Logue continues:

“As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, until the transfer is really and truly fixed and community colleges are better resourced, in many cases a student who wants a bachelor’s degree should start in a bachelor’s degree program (and not be drawn into a community college by the free tuition) as they will then have a better chance of graduating. So I think it’s really unfortunate that the plan was only to make community colleges free. “

In today’s highly layered and hierarchical higher education system, community colleges serve half of the underrepresented students of color and a disproportionate share of those with the greatest financial need. In addition, 2-year-old schools play an inordinate role in the service of parents and adult learners.

Majority of community college students come from the poorest half of the population, compared to only a fifth at most in 4-year-old establishments. These are the students most likely to suffer from housing and food insecurity and a lack of access to health care, including mental health support. They are also the students most likely to attend school part time.

Why are these students disproportionately attending community colleges? The explanation is obvious: lower cost, open access, geographic proximity, job-aligned study programs, and an institutional focus on students with professional and caring responsibilities. Many are first generation college students, and some, therefore, don’t even know the difference between community colleges and license colleges.

The big deal at 2-year institutions isn’t access – after all, for most low-income students, community college is already free, thanks to federal Pell Grant funding and various Promise programs.

The real problems are threefold:

1. Non-academic barriers.
Many of the challenges facing community college students are rooted in the economy. Programs like CUNY’s ASAP demonstrate that the biggest barriers to success in 2-year settings include the cost of child care, transportation, and textbooks. ASAP and similar initiatives also point to the need for further support services and further instruction. Yet even though ASAP doubles associate’s graduation rates, only CUNY community colleges and a handful of others have implemented this program.

2. Underfunding, a challenge aggravated by recent cuts in state funding.
Even though community colleges serve the most economically disadvantaged students, resource constraints result in substantially less than 4 years of spending on educational institutions, student support, and other student services.

Per student spending at community colleges is, on average, almost 30 percent less than at public master’s institutions and 65 percent less than at public research universities. One result: greater dependence on part-time adjunct professors and instructors without a school leaving certificate.

3. Obstacles to transfer.
These barriers include delays in assessing transcripts, loss of credits, misaligned curricula, inadequate transfer advice, unavailability of courses and unresponsive and unfavorable 4-year campuses.

As Professor Logue makes clear, unless these three obstacles are overcome, the ability of community colleges to perform their essential functions will always be crippled.

The underfunding of community colleges is an integral part of larger issues within our education system:

  • A regressive approach to spending which does not adequately fund vocational, technical, applied and vocational education.
  • Spending differentials that significantly favor students who can afford to attend a four-year college or university full-time.
  • A willingness to treat the distribution of students between classes as a reflection of talent, ability, merit and work ethic.

If our goal as a society is to encourage a much larger number of students to earn a bachelor’s degree, we must remove the many obstacles – financial and academic – that stand in our way.

If, on the other hand, we believe that a decent standard of living shouldn’t require a 4-year degree, then we as a society need to support several pathways that will provide people with the skills and degrees they need. need to be successful. their favorite field.

Either way, much larger investments in community colleges must be part of the answer. If President Biden is to return to his bedroom, I urge him to consider scaling up proven approaches, like ASAP, a comprehensive program to help students achieve an associate’s degree in three years by providing them with a financial, academic and personal support, and expanding CUNY’s Pathways initiative, which facilitates the transfer between establishments of 2 and 4 years.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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