Why Obama’s College Plan Is Doomed to Fail

I’ve been saying for years that American higher education ought to be free, but I’m far from sanguine about President Obama’s college plan.  Here’s why: the plan to offer many students two free years at community college fails to take into account the general state of education in this country, from real costs to college readiness to quality of instruction.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel in The Washington Post has already dealt succinctly with the real cost problems: i.e., that tuition is only a small part of the actual costs of college for most students. College readiness is failing dismally because of our ridiculous emphasis on high-stakes testing and its erosion of critical thought among K-12 students. Student preparation and quality of instruction are the real, deeply intertwined problems here. Free tuition will fix neither of them and might make one worse.

Call It Grade 13

Community college is often the first choice for students who aren’t quite ready for university, a kind of Grade 13. That lack of preparedness can be something as simple as maturity level or as complex as the effects of a poorly funded public-school system whose emphasis was testing, not thinking. Community colleges play a crucial role in raising overall graduation rates. The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, in their report “America’s College Drop-Out Epidemic: Understanding the College Drop-Out Population,” estimates that “about a third of four-year college drop-outs would have had a higher chance of getting a bachelor’s degree if they had begun college at a two-year institution.” Freshman composition is one of the proving grounds for this statement. Students at both two- and four-year colleges often need remedial classes and tutoring to reach the basic level of competency required for college. This is true not just for composition but for math and reading as well.

The President’s plan mentions remedial classes, but without any specific attention to the teaching conditions of educators providing them, the plan falls short. Community colleges are currently some of the worst offenders when it comes to hiring faculty on a contingent and/or part-time basis for poverty wages. More than a few are now 100 percent contingent-staffed, whether part-time or on year-long renewable contracts. These seemingly permanent part-time teachers make as little as $900 per course with no possibility of promotion or meaningful job security. At many more colleges, only the head of the department is tenured or at least tenure-track, and the latter is no guarantee of job security. This matters because both remedial and basic education is time-intensive, and time is the last thing contingent faculty have. Contingent faculty, though fully qualified, are not the best people to provide this help, not only because of the way their work lives are scheduled but because of the way too many administrators treat them. As the New Faculty Majority tag line goes, adjunct working conditions become student learning conditions, and those conditions are terrible.

Car or Bus as an Office

Because of the poor pay and job insecurity, most contingent faculty are scrambling between campuses, spending hours on the road that could be better spent mentoring and advising students or closely rereading students’ assignments. Lack of administrative support is equally rampant. Many adjuncts do not have offices, or they have to share their offices with so many other adjuncts that neither they nor their students have any privacy. Some resort to school common areas, local cafes, or to the cars, buses, or subways that transport them between schools and home. Students who need extra help are already angry (justifiably so) and ashamed (regrettably so). Being tutored in basic grammar and sentence structure or math or reading in front of their peers or people who already have degrees that seem increasingly unattainable can be a humiliating experience, one not conducive to either self-respect or self-esteem. Developing mentoring relationships with students takes both time and compassion. Contingent faculty at community and four-year colleges have a dearth of the former and an ever-decreasing supply of the latter, no matter how much they love teaching. Their working conditions, in short, wear them down as much as poverty wears down their neediest students—who are often also the ones who need the most help.

President Obama has emphasized that this program is for “responsible students,” but even the most responsible students can fail at college when the economic and academic decks are stacked against them. Many schools create the conditions that don’t just allow but often encourage students to fail. Administrators and legislators have made college costs—not just tuition, but books and fees and living expenses—so prohibitive that students must take on part- or full-time jobs or enormous debt to pay for them, when going to college is itself a full-time job. Almost 78% of students enrolled full-time at four-year colleges graduate or remain enrolled after six years; 69% of part-time (read: working) students drop out, according to the National Student Clearinghouse’s research report on the 2008 cohort. Economically, the President’s plan at least begins to require that states reinvest in education, and that can only be a good thing for both students and faculty—and for student success. But if this federal investment in community colleges puts another layer of administration between students and faculty through ill-conceived federal standards and goals for community colleges, that loss of instructor autonomy could hurt students even more.

Solving Half the Problems

Two of the major reasons students drop out are financial obligations and lack of individual attention or guidance coupled with unrealistic expectations of the academic demand. In many schools, advising is now the responsibility of professional staff rather than professors, either putting an incredible burden on a small number of advisors and making it a cursory affair, or bloating administration unnecessarily. Providing money for students alone without addressing the conditions of instructors only solves half the problems of access to higher education. For instance, the new federal college ratings system already in the pipeline does not even mention the effects on student learning of the increase in part-time instructors; it doesn’t mention instructors or professors at all.

New regulations and assessments of the kind already being imposed from the top down on K-12 educators would place an undue burden on already underpaid and time-strapped instructors, driving more of them out of the field of education or, again, bloating the administration even more. If, as some educators and administrators worry, this new plan is the first step toward demanding a better “return on investment” via a standardized core curriculum, increased high-stakes testing, and measurement of students’ post-graduation income, then perhaps we should think twice about implementing it. Unless one of the mandates is a more secure and better supported faculty, none of those measures will make much difference in student success.

The President’s plan goes on to say that “community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate.”  The surest way to strengthen programs and increase graduation rates is to ensure that students have instructors they can count on to be there for office hours (and indeed to have an office), instructors who have time and job security to keep up with new research in their fields, develop new pedagogical methods and tools, time to do more than follow a prepackaged syllabus and grade papers, instructors who have time, in other words, to invest in their own institutions and students. When upper-level administrators are virtually the only people on campus in a full-time capacity with (more than) comfortable salaries, it becomes their campus, which is not a learning environment but a business of “butts in seats” and bottom lines. Without enabling instructors to work and teach to the best of their abilities, there are no pedagogically successful programs, only individual courses staffed by disconnected, non-collaborative, overworked educators who don’t even know each other. There is no scholarship, no learning across the curriculum, and even a federally imposed curriculum becomes disjointed at best under these conditions. What is needed is not more administrative programs like the CUNY model cited by the President’s plan, but more collaborative, supported, full-time faculty.

Semblance of Full-Time Work

So how can we make this program successful? Allocating more direct funding of education is the obvious first step. That would help pay for one of the most important reform measures this plan could foster: requiring that participating institutions have a faculty that is at least 75% full-time tenured or tenure track. Under this requirement, adjunct instructors would be what they used to be: people from industry with full-time non-education jobs and special expertise in their fields, rather than instructors providing basic education and stringing together part-time positions for a semblance of “full-time” work. This would encourage faculty investment in the institution, which is vital for successful academic programs of any kind. Requiring these conditions in community colleges would go a long way toward encouraging similar equity in four-year institutions, where it is equally important. It would also foster the kind of shared governance that colleges and universities need to return to, in which professors drive the academic programs and administration supports the faculty in their goals and teaching.

The most important change in educational funding beyond supporting students directly would be to recognize the importance of educators’ role in shaping our community colleges and fostering students’ success. The government fact sheet covering the President’s proposal, like the earlier rating system, makes no mention of instructors, educators, or professors. Leave us out of the picture and court failure. Put us back in the picture and we may once again have the world’s highest rate of college grads.

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