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.

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19 responses to “More Info, Please, on Northam’s Proposed New $145 Million Entitlement

  1. The problem he is seeking to address is real. But you are correct that once this seed is planted, a mighty oak might grow.

  2. So we KNOW it’s a real issue but we’re going to oppose it because once it’s in place it will be there forever?

    That’s the basic Conservative approach?

    Also – I don’t think you can compare some guy trying to get a 2yr degree or occupational certificate – first in his family to get college with a kid going full boat at a 4-year and his Mom/Dad are College grads.

    Finally, We want to create taxpayers not entitlement takers.

    How can we do that if we are unwilling to front the money?

  3. Another question to ask is: In the assumptions that were used to come up with the $145 million price tag, how much was assigned to the cost of the “up to $1000” for living expenses? The implication in this post is that piece will cost $145 million, but it was my understanding that this is the cost of the whole package for community college tuition reduction, etc. What would the total cost of the package be if this component were eliminated?

    “Life gets in the way” is probably a real problem. But, for those people, they had community college tuition and textbook costs, in addition to what else was going on with them. Reducing, or eliminating, those college should go a long way to helping deal with those life things that get in the way. If not, I doubt if $1,000 would help that much.

    • Thanks, Dick, that are all valid caveats to what I wrote.

      • The living costs are a small component of the total proposal. The very fair question is, if the tuition and fees are covered, can the student then actually cover the living costs? It was probably the combination that led them to drop. And yes, Larry, I think it is wise to look into the future before starting something new. No apology for that.

        • So does that mean the kids would be better off going to school across the state at another community college that has dorms or don’t any hav e dorms?

  4. I think we have problems that need to be solved …as Larry says above.
    Regarding post Secondary School … I think what Bernie has said makes sense. It use to be that a high school education was enough for a person to build a life on. That is no longer true so ..what are we going to do about that?

    Regarding the kids that arrive in school unprepared to do the work and who stay behind and drop out along the way. What are you willing to do about that? NYCity has universal pre-K. It costs money but then provides better outcomes that help us create useful citizens.

    I asked earlier if you would be willing to pay for the whole state to adopt that early in school help you wrote about that is successful in western counties. Again it will cost money but create better outcomes.

    This ed stuff has problems that we need to address. Can’t we do that without throwing generalized nonsense at people willing to spend some money to address those issues like … “To many progressives “capitalism” is a dirty word that deserves credit for nothing but racism, sexism, inequality and oppression.”

    How should we go about solving those problems?

    • OMG, Jane, once your Bernie get us paying for free college and paying 50 percent more for electricity (that disappears on windless and cloudy days), won’t that be enough? What’s next? 🙂 The problem of college affordability is the fault of the schools. Had lunch the other day with a friend who used to work at a major state U, and she allowed as how in her old job she might not have really needed a public relations staff of three. OF THREE!

      • Well …do explain about the PR peeps … That is awful. BUT it misses the point that kids now need more than a free high school education to succeed in today’s word…. We became a great country because we provided free education to all!
        Your energy comment is so off base, so inaccurate, that I will just refer you to RMI’s paper on “portfolios” of renewable electricity.
        What’s next … I already said Pre-K.

  5. I’m in general agreement about “life expenses”. But college “affordability” is another one of those slippery phrases in that it can apply to kids in 4year, on-campus as well as Community College live-off-campus.

    If the Community College path takes an individual who will likely earn an occupational certificate and move into a job -that’s worth taxpayer money.

    And Steve, the problem with new programs is chicken and egg – if you don’t try it, it will surely not produce results. I LIKE capped pilot programs and sunset programs.

    One of the interesting things the Feds do is that they will FUND some public safety positions for one or two years then after that, it’s up to the locality – which will have to decide if the additional staff was really worth it… or not.

    Something along those lines… with benchmarks not open-ended forever “free money”… bad karma…

    I would also point out – that if some Community College paths are “free” with a guaranteed job – it will change the way that some K-12 kids “think” and may well motivate them in K-12 academically.

    It makes a huge difference for some kids if there is something of value that you will get if you stay on task. Something to work for.

  6. johnrandolphofroanoke

    I remember in the 4th grade my mother worked as a night waitress at Dulles Airport, attended the NOVA Community College in the day, raised me single handed, all amidst a whirlwind of family drama. Today she is still going strong and is all in at age 70. Mom built a very successful lighting business. The key was the hunger for upward mobility and the determination to get there no matter the cost. The greatest expense is time invested in hard work.

    We must retain the defining American characteristics of self reliance, independence, and the freedom to determine on our own the best uses of time in this world.

  7. Bernie Sanders, 1985:

    “In 1961, [America] invaded Cuba, and everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world,” said Sanders.

    “All the Cuban people were going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They forgot that he educated their kids, gave their kids health care, totally transformed society,” he said.

    Bernie Sanders, 2016

    “What do you mean, ‘How do you ride the subway these days?’” Sanders cluelessly said. “You get a token and you get on.”

    The NYC subway stopped taking tokens in 2008. During the interview Sanders claimed he rode the subway in 2015.

    Bernie Sanders, 2015

    “It makes no sense that students and their parents pay higher interest rates for college than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.”

    Hey Bernie, here’s a clue – Your lobotomy was performed in the drawing room using a candle stick by Colonel Collateral.

    Bernie Sanders, 2016

    “Any Supreme Court nominee of mine will make overturning Citizens United one of their first decisions.”

    Upon being sworn in his nominee will tell the other 8 justices to immediately conjure up a case involving the Citizens United ruling out of thin air, move it to the top of the queue and then “overturn” (the right word is reverse) the court’s prior ruling. He doesn’t have a clue how the Supreme Court works.

    Bernie Sanders, 2015

    “China – not exactly seen as a model when it comes to human rights – provides 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. The US provides zero.”

    China has killed female infants as a mean of population control.

    Last but not least – Bernie Sanders, 2011

    “These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Venezuela”

    • I only have one reply to the response for my support for the concept that some level of free education past high school is required in today’s world.

      Eventually change even makes it to Virginia….. This year Virginia is getting close to passing the ERA, a Constitution Amendment I worked on passing in CT in 1972.
      An email from a Delegate …
      “Watching this history unfold is surreal — the resolution was originally introduced in the General Assembly in 2017 and the next year I became a member of the House of Delegates.
      In 2019, the resolution passed the Senate with bipartisan support! But Republicans in the House blocked the resolution in committee.”
      But this year we are getting “close to passage.” WOW!

  8. One major point of Community College was that students could attend while they worked. That’s why they often held classes at night – no?

    Life got in the way for me as an undergraduate. So I wanted tables at night after classes.

    For all the years I railed against Virginia’s one term governor rule … Northam is making me reconsider. But – where are the Republican retorts?

    • I used to teach classes on an adjunct basis at J. Sargeant Reynolds. Most of the students in my night class worked during the day. And many took more than one class. I had great admiration for them–working full time, taking classes at night, running a household, and raising a family, and still finding time somehow to do the reading and write the papers for the class.

  9. “Life got in the way” for my husband starting in high school when his mom and stepdad made it clear their “support”, such as it ever was, ended upon high school graduation. Like immediately. He joined the Navy for the GI Bill, leaving 2 days after graduation. When he decided to put that GI Bill to use, we had 2 (then 3) children and he worked full-time. It wasn’t easy or fun, but he did it. Where there is a will, there is a way.

  10. I too ended up attending Community College at night to get my college ed.

    I too worked at a variety of jobs after high school at jobs and employers that would hire someone with only a high school diploma.

    I want to point out that those places where I was hired and worked were usually pretty much all white and the black folks typically were the janitors and warehouse and such. Few blacks attended college – even COmmunity College… in part because most had terrible k-12 educations from attending all-black k-12 schools.

    When I started Community College, I had to take remedial courses in language as a consequence of being a son of a serviceman that got transferred every 2-3 years and the schools back then and even today do not teach the same core competencies on the same timeline. You could learn spelling and not grammar then move and where you went, they would have done grammar and moved on to spelling…etc.

    The community college enabled me to a higher paying career path where I was able to finish 2 yrs and do another 2yrs at a 4 year institution.

    The bottom line is that I had “help” with the opportunities and have a “there by the grace of God” mentality when it comes to folks who do not have the same opportunities as those who have college-educated parents and enough money to help their kids through college.

    So I appreciate the obstacles that some face in life compared to others.

    But I also feel that many have a “do-gooder” mentality to “help” and much less motivation to make sure the programs they want funded – actually do work and not fail but continue to get auto-pilot funding.

    So I’m never in favor of just handing over money – and that includes the armed services with their G.I. benefits which have generated a bunch of illegitimate “schools” that basically exist to get the money.

    We also have a similar problem with unscrupulous people on Medicare but we do not kill either program – we have to change them to make it harder for scams to claw that money.

    So… I DO very much support the initiative proposed – with the caveat that this particular approach may have some problems and the program should evolve as they find out what parts of it are not working and reconfigure it to what does work.

    It’s the CONCEPT that I support and sometimes I get the impression that opponents are opposed to the CONCEPT and no matter what
    the actual program is – they will oppose it as costly and ineffective, etc, much like the argument over how much money k-12 should get and is that money “effective”. Is there a “number” for how much public education SHOULD cost per student?

    Mo Money actually DOES work – look at some regions like NoVa where a huge percentage of their grads go on to college compared to lower-funded schools in Virginia. More teachers of the right kind and more resources of the right kind does produce more grads who do go on to college.

    Right now – many schools have a 4-yr college “track” , why not also a 2-yr college track or similar and the 2yr is “free” as long as they take the classes and get the grades? That is “hope” for kids who are from lower income and lower-parent education homes.

  11. As Jane puts it, free education is a necessity. What seems to be lost in the shuffle is that nothing is free, the question is how much of the fruits of my labor is the government going to take from me at threat of jail to give to someone else.

    Glad to see Democrats so focused on passing the ERA. Hope they waste plenty of session time on it rather than their other priorities which harm us. The ERA being passed by VA does absolutely nothing as 4 states rescinded their ratification and the deadline is long since passed so the only way this amendment happens is by reintroducing it to Congress and resending it to all states for passage, needing once again a 2/3 majority across the board. But some folks like living in dreamland where everyone is free and equal and you can pass amendments just because you want to.

  12. Yes, nothing is free but my question remains … what are you willing to pay for to make our country a strong and fair place? Do you believe that we should finance education of everyone to the new level required?

    And another Good Gravy. Yes passing the ERA does not mean it will become an amendment. My point was that it is almost 50 years since the amendment was seriously put forth and almost passed and now here we are in VA having to try again.

    FYI …ERA ..first proposed in 1923…the 60’s brought it forth again and was passed by 35 of the necessary states.

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