President Obama invites Americans to join him in some classic Orwellian doublethink as he asks them to accept two contradictory policy proposals that are supposed to coexist: students can have two “free” years of college if they “work” for it. Here’s how the president (sounding like a used car salesman) explained it from Air Force One on Friday:
Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it. That’s right, free for everybody that’s willing to work for it. It’s something that we can accomplish and it’s something that will train our workforce so that we can compete with anybody in the world.
Here’s the fine print of what they actually intend, via the L.A. Times:
Obama’s proposal would make two years of community college “as free as high school for responsible students,” Munoz told reporters, saving a full-time community college student an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Obama also plans to propose a new fund to pay for high-quality technical training programs.
The program would cover half-time and full-time students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average — about a C-plus — and who “make steady progress toward completing a program,” the White House said.
In other words, these students won’t have to “work” for their education in the way that Americans have traditionally worked their way through college — by waiting tables or laboring at a summer landscaping job in order to scrape together tuition money. By “work,” the president means the students will merely need to maintain minimum academic standards. No lousy fast food job required.
Currently the federal government pays around 16 percent of the total revenue community colleges receive. The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost of the president’s proposed plan and the rest would come from states that opt into the program.
State budget cuts and increased enrollment at community colleges have put an enormous strain on these institutions in recent years, so not many states would be able to afford to “opt out” of such a huge financial incentive, especially if the federal government threatens to pull existing funding for states that choose not to participate.
And once the federal government starts picking up the tab, it will extend its influence into the classrooms of community colleges.
“We don’t expect the country to be transformed overnight, but we do expect this conversation to begin tomorrow,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the president’s domestic policy chief.
More of the fundamental transformation of America that the president promised.
One thing the president didn’t address is the extremely high remedial rates at community colleges. A study from the Alliance for Excellent in Education found that “44 percent of all students at public two-year institutions enrolled in a remedial course.” And according to one survey, “four out of five students taking remedial courses had a high school grade point average above 3.0.” According to student outcomes on the ACT, only 24 percent of tested students were able to meet the “college ready” benchmark.
The study found there is a tremendous cost to remedial education:
Remedial courses represent a cost that taxpayers must pay twice—first for students to learn material in high school and then again for students to relearn that material at the postsecondary level. And the price tag is not small. It is estimated that, nationally, the cost of remediation in public institutions for students enrolled in the 2007–08 school year alone was $3.6 billion.
According to the Center on International Education Benchmarking, more than 70% of students who participate in remedial classes have no degree after 5 years in attendance.
Unless Common Core turns out to be a major game changer in public education — and indications are it will not be — what the president is proposing is two years of free extended high school for many students.
And regardless of college readiness, students in two-year public colleges will be subject to who-knows-what federal strings attached to the “free” federal dollars in service of the Obama agenda and the president’s goal of fundamentally changing America.