The Future of American Higher Education

 

President Obama’s proposal, to make community college free of cost for all Americans, is generating a lot of controversy.  Major complaints are that:

  • The projected cost of $6 billion per year is too high and the program is highly duplicative with other scholarship programs such as Pell grants.
  • Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, not federal.
  • The graduation rate at community colleges is only 21%, much lower than at other types of educational institutions.
  • There is a whole new marketplace of non-degree credentials such as competency-based programs and micro-certifications which often provide greater variety, quality and monetary value than community college programs.

These criticisms are largely valid and should largely be incorporated into the guidelines of the President’s proposal as they are drawn up and submitted to Congress.
CaptureBut they miss the larger point.  Today, about 30% of young people in the U.S. graduate from a four year college.  Tuition and fees at public college averages $9,000 per year while the comparable cost at private colleges is $31,000.  Loan debt for college graduates averages $27,000 per year, and is much higher for many.  And, according to the above chart from the New York Times, educational attainment in the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world.
Today’s increasingly high-tech and interconnected world puts a huge premium on educational attainment and America’s system of higher education is not meeting the challenge.  It is too expensive and not educating enough people, especially minorities and those with low-incomes.
The best way to address this problem in a cost-efficient manner, which is a necessity in today’s fiscal climate, is to expand opportunities at our 1100 community colleges. Community colleges are not only incredibly low cost operations, they accept all students and start them out at whatever academic level is necessary.  They provide the ideal venue to lift up large numbers of average and previously-failed students and turn them into productive members of society.  Boosting community college enrollments will, in turn, give our economy a big boost.
This is the real reason why President Obama’s free tuition plan should be taken seriously.  It will shine a strong light on an educational sector whose potential is greatly under-appreciated by many Americans.

What Is the Best Way to Advance Martin Luther King’s Dream?

 

In Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal John McWhorter, an African-American professor at Columbia University, describes “A Better Way to Honor Dr. King’s Dream”. Mr. McWhorter writes that a new conversation about race, “one in which whites submit to a lesson from blacks about so-called institutional racism” is not what America needs.  “Today’s struggle should focus on three priorities.  First, the war on drugs, a policy that unnecessarily tears apart black families and neighborhoods.  Second, community colleges and vocational education, which are invaluable in helping black Americans get ahead.  And third, the AIDS and obesity epidemics, which are ravaging black communities.”
Such sentiments represent a huge dose of common sense.  The African-American community needs help and cooperation from the wider society to address fundamental issues like juvenile delinquency, poor educational outcomes and unhealthy environments.  But these things, as much as they’re needed, are not enough by themselves for further progress towards racial equality.
The route out of poverty for all low income people, including blacks, is to raise themselves up by their bootstraps through educational attainment and hard work.  Society can and should make sure that the appropriate institutions, such as community colleges, are readily available to provide training for jobs which are out there in the private sector.
But most of all we need a vibrant economy to give lower income Americans more opportunities to work their way up the economic ladder.  We have not yet recovered in a satisfactory manner from the Great Recession which ended in June 2009.  This makes it all the more important for our national leaders to focus on the pro-growth policies which will get our economy humming again.