Obama’s Community College Plan Would Be a Total Disaster

Unless community colleges change the way they do business — and degree seekers change their expectations. A community college instructor explains.

President Obama | Photo Jeff Fusco; piggy bank | Shutterstock.com

President Obama, photo Jeff Fusco |  piggy bank, Shutterstock.com

Obama’s dream plan to offer free community college tuition to students across the nation could work. The key word here is “could.” It would require a vast majority of community college systems to re-focus and re-think how they are currently handling their student populations and, to be frank, the nation’s potential community college students would need to re-focus and re-think what a college degree ultimately delivers.

However, given the “business model” that many community colleges are currently using, the Obama plan would be a total disaster. We’d simply be pumping out more students with more degrees that essentially mean nothing. 

The goal of the community college needs to shift from being “transfer mills” — where the sole purpose is to graduate students with associate degrees who then transfer to four-year institutions — to re-training facilities that provide students with the tools they need to be competent employees and human beings in the changing world.

I’ve been an instructor of writing and English at both community colleges and universities for just about 10 years now, and I can see how the system has failed so many students who think that, by completing some sort of degree, they’ve set themselves up for success, only to find that, six months after graduation, they’re still ringing people up at Best Buy or answering phones at a call center.

This was brought into sharp focus during the “Great Recession” when community college enrollment skyrocketed across the country. People who were laid off from jobs and looking for a new start would come to my classroom: Former supermarket employees or factory laborers thought getting an associates degree in psychology or math would somehow make them employable. Yet, while trying to complete requirements for an associates degree, nowhere were they taught the basic skills needed to be a competent employee in the 21st century: how to operate Windows, how to compose a cover letter, how to use distinct career-related software. These students were being “prepped” to transfer to a four-year school, when all they really wanted was to get some skills to go back to work.

Yes, there is value in exposing people to great works of literature, art, and philosophy, but most employers don’t care so much about that. I think it’s lovely that my students can have a great discussion about an ancient Greek play, and I love teaching them about the poetry of Rumi, but I almost feel like I’m selling a false bill of goods. The romantic notion of a college education is, well, dead in most cases. That’s why, when I teach a business writing course, one full of resume, cover letter, and public speaking assignments, I actually see practical progress with my students. It’s a relief!

So, why the focus on transfer? It boils down to one word: money. I’ve heard college administrators call the system a “pipeline”: Get them in the door at the community college and move them along to the four-year schools. While, in some cases, this is a life-saving economic grace for students who couldn’t afford four years at, say, Drexel or Temple, it doesn’t help the student who is looking for a career-building stepping stone. It also isn’t healthy that the notion of “trade education” has become a dirty word. This is absurd and a slap in the face to men and women who are interested in a more technically based career.

There are some systems that are doing it right: Delaware Technical and Community College offers both academic programs and technical, trade-related degrees. Students are learning skills that are modern, relevant, and insanely in need in the workforce: sustainable energy, construction technology, and, yes, agriculture, are all areas of study. Sure, students can transfer afterwards to continue their education, — but they can also get jobs.

The Obama community college plan will face an uphill battle once it heads to Congress: Opponents of such a program are already mapping out the tax-payer dollars that it would cost. To be frank, it will be a huge victory if even some form of the proposed legislation is passed. But that victory would have to come with serious soul searching from the community college system. The way the game is being played would have to change dramatically, if for no other reason than ethics alone.

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