Tag: community colleges

No Profile in Courage Here, Either

Yesterday, speaking at Facebook headquarters, President Obama assessed the guts of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other congressional Republicans and concluded that their deficit reduction plan isn’t “particularly courageous.” That might be accurate – their plan lacks specificity and could target a lot more for elimination – but it’s pretty rich for the President to throw out such a conclusion. After all, his whole strategy appears to be the bankruptingly lame-but-safe crying of doom for cute kids and other supposedly defenseless people no matter what the size of the proposed cut to a social program or how ineffective the program has been. That, and the constant lamentation that “the rich” – a small and therefore electorally weak group of voters – don’t pay their fair share. (And the constitutionality of federal programs? That doesn’t even get a mention.)

Representative of this cowardly course is the President’s mantra about “investing” more in education-related programs despite blaring evidence that the programs don’t work or, as is the case with federal student aid, actually make the problem they’re supposed to solve much worse. But the President wants votes – like most politicians, he wants lots of people to think he’s giving them great stuff for free – so he’s not doing the mildly courageous thing and telling people “look, these programs don’t work, we have a titanic debt, and I’m going to cut things that might sound good but aren’t.” No, he’s doing things like going to community colleges and, in front of cheering groups of students, talking about mean Republicans and how he wants to protect students just like them by keeping the federal dollars flowing.

That’s no profile in courage, nor is it a responsible way to deal with the federal government’s gigantic problems.

Some ‘Unsung Heroes’ These Colleges Are

Heating and cooling equipment installed upside down. A ramp for the disabled too steep for wheelchairs. A leaning tower of time. A $3.4 million renovation for a theater slated for demolition. Payouts to everyone from airborne videographers to feng shui experts.

Welcome to community college!

These and a litany of other failures and abuses are chronicled in a new Los Angeles Times article on the disaster that has been the Los Angeles Community College District’s decade-long, $5.7 billion building orgy.  It’s a tale made especially sickening by California college officials’ repeated wailing that state budget cuts are forcing them to dig “deep into bone.”  It’s also galling in the face of Washington politicians’ continued berating of for-profit schools and blind-eye-turning toward excess throughout higher ed. And topping it all off, President Obama recently proclaimed community colleges the “unsung heroes” of American education.

They’ve certainly earned the “unsung” part.

Higher Education Subsidies Wasted

A study from the American Institutes of Research finds that federal and state governments have wasted billions of dollars on subsidies for students who didn’t make it past their first year in college. The federal total for first-year college drop outs was $1.5 billion from 2003 to 2008.

Due to data limitations, the figures are only for first year, full-time students at four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges have even higher drop-out rates, and part-time students or students returning to college are more likely to drop out. Therefore, the numbers in the report are “only a fraction of the total costs of first-year attrition the nation and the states face.” Moreover, it doesn’t include the cost for students who drop out some time after their sophomore year.

Federal policymakers from both parties are fond of lavishing subsidies on college students. Proponents argue that without federal subsidies, an insufficient number of future workers will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.

However, a Cato essay on federal higher education subsidies argues that students wishing to attend college already have plenty of incentive to save or borrow from private sources:

Supporters of student aid subsidies argue that higher education is a “public good” that would be underprovided in a free market. However, that is probably not the case. People have a strong incentive to invest in their own education because it will lead to higher earnings. Those with a college degree will earn, on average, 75 percent more during their lifetime than those with just high-school degrees. That is a big incentive for people to save or borrow in private markets to pay for their own college costs. There is no “market failure” here.

In fact, higher education subsidies drive up tuition prices:

It is matter of supply and demand. More and more Americans have sought a college education, which has pushed prices higher. Ordinarily, such upward pressure would be restrained by consumers’ willingness and ability to pay, but as government subsidies have helped absorb tuition increases, the public’s budget constraint has been lifted. Peter Wood, a professor at Boston University noted that federal subsidies “are seen by colleges and universities as money that is there for the taking … tuition is set high enough to capture those funds and whatever else we think can be extracted from parents.”

But isn’t it great that Uncle Sam is helping put more young folks in college? Not necessarily:

Many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. As evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work. Further evidence of the problem is that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, college grade point averages grew steadily but Scholastic Aptitude Test scores declined. The share of entering college students who complete degrees has also fallen over the decades. In addition, while college attendance is up, overall adult literacy has barely budged over the last 15 years.

The essay also notes that college students devote 3.2 hours to education on an average weekday, versus 3.9 hours to “leisure and sports,” and that the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is only about 56 percent, indicating that many students are not very serious about education.

Just as housing subsidies incentivized people to purchase homes that they otherwise shouldn’t have, higher education subsidies have incentivized people to go to college who weren’t ready or suited for it. In both cases, the cost to taxpayers has been substantial while the alleged benefits have proven illusory.

President Obama and Education Politics As Usual

President Obama has seemingly made an entire mountain range out of his Race-to-the-Top reform molehill, while he’s gotten more or less a free pass on all he’s done to enrich the status quo. And now, with big midterm losses looming for his party, he appears to be resorting to one of the easiest political ploys in the book: Claim the GOP will cut funding to education and, in so doing, hurt innocent children and cripple the nation’s economic future. As the President opined in his weekly address:

[I]f Republicans in Congress had their way….We’d have a harder time offering our kids the best education possible. Because they’d have us cut education by 20 percent – cuts that would reduce financial aid for eight million students; cuts that would leave our great and undervalued community colleges without the resources they need to prepare our graduates for the jobs of the future.

Now, it is true that when it comes to our budget, we have real challenges to meet. And if we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order, we’ll need to make some tough choices. I’m prepared to make those choices. But what I’m not prepared to do is shortchange our children’s education. What I’m not prepared to do is undercut their economic future, your economic future, or the economic future of the United States of America.

Where did the President get the 20 percent number? It most likely stems from the promise in the House Republican’s “Pledge to America” to return federal spending unrelated to defense or senior citizens to pre-stimulus levels. Presumably, that means education spending would be reduced to the level it was at before passage of the stimulus. Considering that the stimulus was supposed to be a one-shot thing, that hardly seems like a draconian move.

That said, the much more important consideration is that based on decades of evidence – not to mention the strictures of the Constitution – federal education spending should not only be reduced, it should be phased out completely. Looking at the evidence since the feds started delving deeply into education in the mid-1960s, it’s clear that we’ve gotten very little for our money. 

Start with K-12 education, where we have results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a consistent measure of performance since the early 1970s :

As you can see, Washington has spent steeply increasing amounts of money and not moved the needle at all for the 17-year-olds that constitute the “final products” of our elementary and secondary schools.

How about higher education?

Here the main focus has been providing stduent financial aid to increase college access, and in defense of the feds we have seen big increases in college enrollment since the mid-1960s. Enrollment, however, had been increasing substantially for many decades prior to 1965 or the post-World War II G.I. Bill, suggesting that Washington might have just caught an enrollment wave that was coming in anyway. There is also strong evidence that federal student aid has helped fuel rampant tuition inflation, largely negating the aid’s value. And while we have no consistent, long-term measure of learning outputs, we can at a minimum see that literacy among holders of at least a bachelor’s degree dropped between 1992 and 2003. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, forty percent of people whose highest educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree were proficient prose readers in 1992 . By 2003, only 31 percent were. For Americans with graduate degrees, 51 percent were proficient in 1992. Eleven years later, only 41 percent were.

Unfortunately, for decades federal politicians have expended taxpayer money either in goodhearted – but misguided – efforts to improve education, or more selfishly, to appear to “care about the children” and make political hay. Regardless of the motivation, at this point it must no longer be ignored: Washington ‘s spending on education has gotten us little of demonstrable value.  For President Obama to not even acknowledge the powerful evidence of this, but instead trot out the old canard that less spending is synonymous with worse education,  signals that he’s more than willing to play bankrupting education politics as usual.