More Info, Please, on Northam’s Proposed New $145 Million Entitlement

by James A. Bacon

In his State of the Commonwealth speech yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam outlined his proposals for hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending initiatives. Needless to say, it was impossible during such a high-altitude overview to provide a detailed explanation of the thinking behind each program. In most instances, he posited a “need,” proffered a government “solution,” and moved on. But in one intriguing instance, his $145 million program to make community college more affordable, he delved deeper.

There are two big barriers that hinder “non-traditional students” (those whose parents did not attend college) from completing their community college degrees, the Governor said. One is cost, and the other is life itself.

Here’s an example. At Reynolds Community College here in Richmond, a majority of students are people of color. The college looked at “retention rates” — who starts a degree program and then goes on to complete it. They identified students who started one academic year and didn’t come back the next. They asked why didn’t these students come back.

The answer is really important. The facts showed it was not academics that kept them from coming back. In fact, these students usually had earned a 3.1 grade point average when they left school.

These students enrolled in a degree program — trying to get a skill, so they can get a job, and provide for the people they love. They set a goal. They worked hard. They performed well, but they dropped out. Why? They left because life got in the way. The car broke down. Or the baby got sick. Or they lost their job. Just trying to get ahead. And then life hits you.

There’s a lot going on in that statement. Let’s unpack it.

The first thing to note is that Northam has moved the goalposts. Once upon a time, the idea behind financial aid was to help students cover the cost of education: their tuition, fees, and (in the case of residential colleges) room, and board. But that’s not enough any longer. Now Northam wants to help pay — over and above whatever students may receive in government programs such as food stamps, earned income tax credits, and health care — assistance for when “life gets in the way.” The program would provide up to $1,000 “to help with transportation, child care, the rent, or even food. To help with life.”

Wow. Talk about a bottomless spending pit. There will never be enough money to provide “help with life” to everyone who needs that help. Pressure will be unrelenting to increase the level of assistance.

The second thing to note, though, is what seems to be a significant finding: The primary reason that students dropped out of J. Sarge, and by extension the reason why they drop out of community colleges around the state, is that “life gets in the way.” They don’t drop out because they’ve landed a job and decided to go to work. They don’t drop out because they can’t keep up with the academics. They drop out because of living expenses. That is not on the face of it an implausible proposition. Unlike students who attend four-year residential colleges, whose financial aid covers room and board, community college students have to live and eat somewhere, and they’re not getting any assistance from their local community college. Perhaps the Governor has identified a genuine hurdle.

However, I make it a practice to take nothing at face value. It’s not that I disbelieve Northam, but given his predisposition to throwing money at every social malady he encounters, I don’t take his word for it on the basis of the limited information he presented in his speech.

Northam got his information from the J. Sarge administration, which we can safely presume is not disinterested in the outcome. A finding that living expenses are a major barrier to attendance aligns nicely with J. Sarge’s desire to extract more financial assistance from the state rather than, say, figure out how to cut expenses.

I would like to know how the college “identified” students who started one year and did not come back the next, and I’d like to know how they “asked” why they didn’t come back. Did the college send out a survey? Did school officials query students in person? How representative a sample were those who responded? What were the results — did students give other explanations? Finally, how typical is J. Sarge’s experience of other community colleges?

The granular details matter because Northam is proposing a $145 million entitlement expansion, and Virginians have seen no body of evidence to confirm J. Sarge analysis much less evidence to suggest that the remedy is tailored to the nature of the problem. In other words we have no assurance on the basis of data in the public domain that this expensive program will make any difference whatsoever in retention rates.

I have put in a request to J. Sarge for a copy of its findings, and I’ll get back to you when I get it.