National Assault on Community Colleges

Monday, April 2, 2012
A thought-provoking new report just out from the Center on the Future of Higher Education documents and laments the assault on community colleges underway across the country.

Bucking historic trends in rising college enrollments, there's been a startling stagnation or even a downturn in enrollment in community colleges, not because demand has declined but because there is insufficient capacity.  In some places and in some programs, thanks to substantial and sustained budget cuts, the community colleges are literally tapped out.

That's right-- students are showing up at "open door" colleges and being effectively turned away.  Welcome to the "new normal."

If you believe that the purpose of public postsecondary education is to provide opportunities to the most advantaged, this is insane. Clearly, the current model for public higher education is broken, and as the report argues, it's time for a "reboot." If you believe that college endows social goods, which entire communities benefit from, then you will support greater public investment in community colleges to reverse this trend. If you believe in equity, and actually understand how people with fewer resources make decisions, rather than assuming they are econometricians, then you'll demand change now.

If on the other hand, if you think that college is merely a private investment that accrues to individual people and you think that markets actually solve more problems than they create, and if you believe education is an economic good comparable to any other product then you probably think public higher education is in exactly the position it deserves.  The market must be working.  Sure, demand is outstripping supply, but thank goodness the private sector is here to help!  We can simply raise tuition at community colleges to fund them, and in the meantime pave the road for private institutions where the public has no say over governance or spending, or for that matter quality. (No, sorry, accreditation isn't going to ensure quality, and just as consumers demonstrate time and again, neither are the students.)  All that matters is that we provide the mirage of opportunity to satisfy our own appetite for the meritocracy narrative, right? And heck, maybe this will finally provide a way of telling everyone outside of the elite classes that they shouldn't be going to college anyway!

Read the report. Either this is a crisis we have to resolve, or we are denying the existence of a crisis because the assault on community colleges is an intentional one designed to promote the growth of private and for-profit institutions.  "Stealth privatization" of higher education, as Richard Vedder called it at a conference my department hosted last week, is no longer so stealth at all.  The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education-- and students nationwide-- want to know, isn't it time to DO something about it?