Free Community College Will Only Make Things Worse

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Intellectual Takeout on May 19, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.


Like nearly all Americans, President Joe Biden believes that a college degree is the ticket to both individual economic advancement and uplifting the poor. To put his money where his mouth is, he has proposed $256 billion in government funding to cover two years of public community college plus cash for living expenses. In an instant, an improved workforce and less economic inequality. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as critics note. But left unsaid in this opposition is an awkward reality: free classroom instruction will not elevate a deficient workforce. Ask any business owner or manager about hiring decent help—I myself owned and operated a small retail business for 14 years—and they all complain about finding workers with adequate “soft skills,” not sufficient book learning. Yes, there are some technical skills only available via classroom instruction, but for most of the workforce, particularly at the lower rungs, on-the-job-training usually suffices.

Enumerations of these “soft skills” often vary, but all employers have a pretty good idea of what they entail. Intelligence is vital. While employees need not be rocket scientists, they must be able to pick things up quickly and figure out new situations. Stupidity cannot be fixed by mentoring, training, pay boosts, or any other intervention. Hiring a dummy is worse than hiring nobody. The same can be said for honesty. Yes, a business might tolerate some employee theft or a little lying, but there are limits. Of further import are such personal virtues as dependability, punctuality, taking initiative, and dutifulness. What do you do with a new hire too lazy to learn required skills? Can anyone successfully run a business where employees regularly skip work, arrive late, depart early, drink on the job, mismanage their time, and spend hours gossiping on cellphones?

Managers and business-owners are also aware of how employees can undermine the cohesion necessary for a healthy bottom line. Try holding meetings with thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive workers who chronically complain about discrimination or unfair treatment, especially if these workers routinely avail themselves of government intervention to reverse this alleged harm. Or try dealing with employees whose thorny personalities and egos disrupt teamwork. In my business I recall commission-obsessed salespeople who angered co-workers by hogging customers while neglecting non-commission, but essential tasks such as straightening up inventory. Sports teams know full well about the hazards of talented players whose selfish behavior hinders team success. Better to trade such disruptors to some other team.

There are, no doubt, other vital soft skills, but they all share one thing in common: none will be taught in a community college. There are no classes in good manners or dressing appropriately, let alone speaking clearly. In fact, the opposite may be true if the school tolerates indolence to keep government tuition money flowing. It is all too tempting to overlook erratic attendance or cheating if Washington’s checks just depend on the body count. Under such conditions, students learn the very opposite of what makes for a desirable employee and so all this “free” money actually subverts Biden’s supposed goals.

Underlying this mismatch between college and what employers need is culture. Soft skills reflect a distinctive culture, and not everyone embraces this culture. Honesty is not a universally admired trait, nor is punctuality, neatness, a strong work ethic, agreeableness, or multiple other “soft skill” traits so necessary to running a successful enterprise.

Even if community colleges recognized the importance of imparting these traits and possessed the recipe for the secret sauce, this task would likely be rejected as “cultural imperialism” or, to be blunt, imposing whiteness on people of color. Besides, not everybody can be punctual and, that understood, perhaps workplaces should make reasonable accommodations for sloth and other similar costly inclinations, just as they now are legally required to accommodate those with certain physical disabilities. In today’s litigation-happy environment, any employer who refuses to provide such accommodations risks expensive government scrutiny and potential financial settlements. It is easy to imagine employees refusing to learn necessary job skills and insisting they suffer from some murky learning disability precluding them from mastering a computerized cash register.

Unfortunately, while this soft skill problem is universally known among employers, it is nearly unspeakable in public. No business owner can say that the local talent pool is hopelessly intellectually challenged and beyond help. Such honesty contravenes the current political dogma that all problems are fixable via education, and educational fixes will succeed if we just spend enough money. It is taboo to even hint that many of the poor suffer from intractable problems making them unsuitable for a modern economy.

All in all, Biden’s “solution” is just what you’d expect from a government careerist who never ran a business. As far as he is concerned, hiring more teachers at government expense will make the dumb smart and the lazy energetic.


Image: Phil Roeder, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

7 thoughts on “Free Community College Will Only Make Things Worse

  1. Actually, colleges and community colleges can and often do impart a tremendous amount of “soft skills” and workplace professionalism. We see this all the time with the maturation of students as they progress through their programs. It’s a real pleasure to witness. Career centers at colleges can help too.

    I’m not in favor of Biden’s proposal, actually. But the severe negativism on display here is not doing anyone any good. Certainly not the cause, whatever it is, of mindingthecampus. In the final paragraph, he invokes people who have run a business in course of dumping on our “dumb and lazy” workers. Great, we are a dumb and lazy country. Trump had a name for that. An inspiring message. Actually, most successful small business owners are far more positive about their workers. If they aren’t, they’re probably headed out of business.

    1. “We see this all the time with the maturation of students as they progress through their programs.”

      That’s what high school used to be for — Grades 11 & 12.
      Now we have to have Grades 13 & 14 — why???

      1. A fair question. First, I doubt that things have changed much from 50 years ago. But the generations before the boomers probably were more mature. A lot of reasons. For one thing, life was shorter. For another, you didn’t have much choice. If you wanted to eat, you had to function to an extent. If you wanted sex, you had babies, and you were best off getting married.

        In a sense, what difference does it make? The Robert Weissbergs are not going to turn high schoolers into fully-formed adults. That is fantasy thinking — come to think of it, something he is kind of counseling us to avoid.

        Do the guys who work on my house have good work habits? Hell no! In a lot of ways, they’re like pretty highly paid bums. Would the local CC help them out? If so, I’m all for it!

  2. This article is disgusting. The author spent 10 paragraphs complaining about how workers complain. If you want a motivated workforce, pay them. If you want a motivated workforce, provide them with opportunities they do not want to risk losing.
    The author complains about a lack of culture, but really is complaining about employees not accepting a culture of dirt pay for high performance, ensuring he can benefit off the labor of employees at the lowest possible cost. The author is complaining about an uneducated workforce while complaining about the costs to educate a workforce.
    What a joke. This wreaks entitlement.

  3. The lack of soft skills is not just hurting businesses, but colleges as well. Dependable students turn in assignments when due, show up to class on time and have regular attendance. Unfortunately that does not describe many students. Too many today expect special treatment because, after all, they’re special. My college instituted a Pass/No-Pass grading option for student traumatized by the pandemic; it was surprising how many students took at option.

    I believe this goes to the heart of what is behind this pervasive immaturity and hypersensitivity of so many students today. They lack soft skills and college is their first exposure to an environment that expects them. These student just can’t cope—and too many still can’t after getting that 4-year degree.

    1. Patti, I don’t disagree — and I’d add express themselves in something resembling a coherent manner.

      But what infuriates me are the so-called “socially liberal-economically conservative” RINOs whose labor management practices (and attitudes) are out of the 19th Century. It’s not just that they pay their employees less than the opportunity cost of their employment but also treat them badly — and then wonder about why they have a shortage of employees……

  4. There is another saying — that you get what you pay for.

    I have no sympathy for people who complain about the quality of the employees they have when they pay them poorly and treat them worse. The computerized cash register, developed to idiot-proof the job so it could pay less, is part of the problem.

    That said, the problem is that the promise of the college degree has collapsed over the past 40 years and Biden is merely proposing babysitting…

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