Universal college, but what about readiness?

President Obama wants to make the first two years of college just like high school. Free, that is.

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

Robert Fusco teaches division in a remedial math class at a New Jersey community college. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

“It seems that we can’t fix our high schools, which already send hundreds of thousands of graduates into remedial courses at community (and other) colleges,” writes Checker Finn. Adding two more years of universal education is “nuts.”

Community colleges are heavily subsidized, so tuition is low. In most states, Pell Grants cover the full cost of tuition for low-income students with money left over for books, rent and food.

The challenge isn’t access. It’s readiness—which is the precursor to successful completion of a degree or certificate from the community college. If you’re not prepared for college-level work when you arrive, the odds that you will succeed there are grim.

. . . (Universality) diverts resources and creates windfalls in ways that diminish the likelihood of ever solving the real problem.

Universality is “genius,” argues Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic. In Tennessee, almost 90 percent of graduating high school seniors have indicated interest in the state’s tuition-free community college plan, he writes.

The high interest suggests some middle-class and wealthy families whose children would have otherwise attended four-year colleges may be giving two-year institutions a second look. While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated.

Community colleges that serve middle- and upper-income students will gain the political capital to get more state funding, he argues.

First to college — but not to a degree

More low-income students are enrolling in college, but few go on to earn a degree, reports Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Many are poorly prepared for college work, struggling with financial burdens and working long hours, writes Riggs.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is only 39 percent. By comparison, the state’s flagship university, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduates 71 percent of students and 54 percent of its first-generation students.

A minority of four-year schools provide adequate support to first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, who directs a new nonprofit called I’m First.

Most disadvantaged students choose unselective state universities, community colleges or online programs with low graduation rates and little funding for support services.

If President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition passes — which it won’t — then first-generation, low-income students who could get into a selective university may decide to start at community college instead. (Actually, few low-income students pay any community college tuition, but they might get more Pell dollars to cover their living expenses.) That would be a high-risk decision.

Why college costs so much

Growing federal subsidies have inflated the cost of college, economist Richard Vedder tells the Wall Street Journal.  “It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees.”

Colleges build luxury dorms and recreation centers, says Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. They hire “administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs.”

“Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists,” Mr. Vedder says. “My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally. . . . Why? What’s bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?”

Federal spending hasn’t made college more accessible for low-income students or improved graduation rates, says Vedder. Only 7 percent of recent graduates come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12 percent in 1970 when federal aid was scarce.

President Obama’s proposal to tie federal aid to graduation rates, and other performance metrics, will spur grade inflation, Vedder predicts.

“I can tell you right now, having taught at universities forever, that universities will do everything they can to get students to graduate,” he chuckles. “If you think we have grade inflation now, you ought to think what will happen. If you breathe into a mirror and it fogs up, you’ll get an A.”

Online education could reduce costs, says Vedder, but don’t expect the government to take the lead.

“First of all, the Department of Education, to use K-12 as an example, has been littered with demonstration projects, innovation projects, proposals for new ways to do things for decades. And what has come out? Are American students learning any more today than a generation ago? Are they doing so at lower cost than a generation ago? No.”

Government can help by getting out of the way, Vedder says.

Many professors are “disappointed” by President Obama’s higher ed plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

. . . the plan focuses on certain measurable student outcomes – such as graduation rates – but would do little to ensure actual student learning.

Some called it a No Child Left Behind for higher education.

Linking student aid to graduation rates and earnings would encourage colleges to reject disadvantaged students and humanities majors with low earning potential, writes Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution.

Pell isn’t for the poor any more

Designed to help low-income students go to college, Pell Grants increasingly are going to middle-class students, an analyst writes.

What’s a degree worth in job market?  Virginia’s new data base answers that question — at least for graduates who work in the state.