Open the Sluicegates! More Free Stuff!

by James A.Bacon

Virginia’s revenue forecasts for the next two years are looking rosy, and special interests are bursting with ideas on how to spend the money. First Medicaid, then K-12 education, then public four-year colleges. Now the Virginia Community College System.

Governor Ralph Northam, we learn today from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is pitching $50 million in community college spending over the next biennium in targeted programs to support student access and affordability.

Meanwhile, reports The Virginia Mercury, community college Chancellor Glenn DuBois wants to explore the idea of building dormitories on community college campuses to help offset a decline in enrollment. No price tag provided.

Nowhere in this discussion do we hear the phrases, “restructuring,” “focusing on core missions,” or “reallocating resources to address new priorities.”

Due to a birth dearth and decline in the number of 18-year-olds, DuBois foresees a decline in community college enrollment. The number of students has declined about 2% over the past five years, and demographic trends suggest the numbers could erode even more.

My reaction: So what? If your priority is protecting jobs of community college staff and faculty, well, a declining student population is a problem. If your priority is saving taxpayers money, your reaction is, hurrah, fewer students to educate!

For sure, community colleges play an essential role in providing Virginians skills they need to participate in a knowledge-intensive economy, and they warrant continued taxpayer support. But dormitories add nothing of educational value. Their sole purpose, as I glean from the Virginia Mercury article, is to boost enrollment — in particular, enrollment of foreign students in Northern Virginia.

“Northern Virginia is missing out in thousands, potentially millions, from international students,” he said at a board meeting Thursday. “No parent is going to send their child to America if they don’t know where they’re going to live.”

What? Providing inexpensive education to foreign students is now a mission of Virginia’s community colleges?

At least Northam’s plan is geared to helping Virginia students.

Here’s what Tom Allison, an analyst with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia had to say in a state Senate hearing in Harrisonburg, according to the RTD:

The $50 million over two years is meant to support student access, affordability and completion at community colleges and would represent an unprecedented amount for the state’s programs.

That could include a tuition-free community college program, he said.

“We are seeing that we need to invest in the sub-baccalaureate area. We are going to need to produce more associate degrees and certificates,” Allison said. “While the parameters of a free college plan will be a decision for the governor’s office, we support the investment.”

Fully funding free community-college tuition would cost $512 million. A more modest program might cover low-income and middle-income students pursuing technical education or credentialing in high-priority fields.

Let me propose a fundamental principle: Free tuition is a bad, bad idea. A pernicious idea. Every student who goes to college, whether community college or four-year, needs to have skin in the game. When a student (or his/her family) contributes toward the cost of his own education, it’s a strong signal that he sees value in earning the degree or credential. It’s a sign of commitment and willingness to expend effort. I don’t recall seeing any data to suggest that the system of state financial aid and federal loans is inadequate for community college students.The cost of community colleges, unlike four-year colleges, is not a major barrier.

Northam’s proposal is akin to the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent. Spend $50 million over two years to establish the principle of free community college tuition, then continually expand the program in future years. That’s how entitlement programs have worked in the past, and that’s how it will work if Northam’s proposal is enacted.

The bottom line of these prposals: Ask nothing of lower-income beneficiaries, ask nothing of the indirect beneficiaries (faculty, administrators, etc.), just dump the cost on the great tax-paying middle class.

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11 responses to “Open the Sluicegates! More Free Stuff!

  1. You beat me to the starting line on this one, as I too was taken aback at the Chancellor’s proposal. I’ve already noted on Dick’s piece my concerns about “free” but my support for really pushing to get the cost lower, perhaps down to near zero for the lowest income cohorts. While on SCHEV I supported the current program offering grants for non-degree certificates.

    Putting more things together, you had these money committee presentations on the wonderful opportunities for tech jobs, the need to train thousands upon thousands of additional college graduates in these fields, BS and MS level. But where are the bodies? Don’t young people first need to succeed at K-12, and if those outcomes are faltering, how do you feed this pipeline? Is this VCCS dream of dorms and luring immigrant students a tacit admission that Virginia’s K-12 pipeline cannot cash the check the state has written to Amazon?

  2. Have any of the four year schools considered renting community college classrooms to increase the number of adult extension classes available at night so local workers can gain credits toward a degree or improve their job skills? Community colleges are supposed to benefit the community, not profit from importing foreign students.

  3. I agree with you that building dormitories for community colleges is a bad idea. It is not in keeping with the basic premise and mission of “community” colleges. In addition, dormitories would probably be a waste, largely unused, in most areas. If they are needed, or would be utilized, in Northern Virginia, I am sure that there is some enterprising entrepreneur who would build a dormitory or two, especially targeted to the community college population. As for the foreign students, I seriously doubt if there are many parents who send their kids to America to attend community college.

    As for the rest, I don’t understand the objections. A student needs to have a financial stake in order to have commitment and willingness to expend effort? I didn’t contribute to the cost of my college education. I was lucky, but I don’t think that affected my commitment. My daughter had a full scholarship. She (and by extension, me) had no financial stake. It certainly did not affect her commitment and effort.

    Even if one has no financial skin in the game, going to community college is not a free walk in the park. It takes time. One either has to defer getting a job and making money or take classes in addition to working. (I have taught adjunct classes at both the local community college and at VCU. I admired those students who had full-time jobs in addition to taking classes.)

    Depending on how it is structured, the proposal being developed has the potential of helping middle income, as well as low income, students lower their costs of getting a four-year education or greatly increase their ability of getting a professional or technical education and credential. If there is some desire for a quid pro quo, then frame it in terms of community service after the educational program is completed.

  4. I’m not in favor of the Community colleges getting into the dormitory business and also – this bad idea is what has surfaced rather than some other ideas that may have merit. They’ve shot themselves in the foot because they’re walking and talking the “MO MONEY” game.

    THe housing can and should be handled with Hostels… and similar.

    What I want to see the Community Colleges do more of is internships and apprenticeships. Strong links to the area businesses that tailors the academic and instruction to business needs, and focused in particular on the community business needs.

    Community College is NOT a “destination” either. It’s the beginning of a life-long pursuit of education – which is mandatory in the 21st century economy – NO ONE is ever “finished” with education t these days unless they are finished being employed.

    We have to change the mindset that people have that it’s up to the government and industry to PROVIDE them with a job. Nope, it’s ON YOU – with the govt and business doing support roles.

    I’m disappointed with the leadership of the Community Colleges – they’re on a wrong track when their leading “want” is dormitories.

  5. re: ” One either has to defer getting a job and making money or take classes in addition to working. (I have taught adjunct classes at both the local community college and at VCU. I admired those students who had full-time jobs in addition to taking classes.)”

    Indeed, There are those among us, for various reasons, did not graduate from high school and go directly to a 4 yr college. Some of us went to work at Leggetts and K-Mart and thought about going into the Armed Forces then took a loss on pay to take a low-level govt job because it also offered health care and tuition assistance for Community College. Thus began many years of Community College night class after work (officially called “work-study”) – and finally home at 9-10pm and back up at 6am to go to work. Homework was whenever it could be fit in.

    The thing about many young people not strongly mentored by parents is that they don’t really know what they want nor the consequences of making mistakes… but as time goes by -most all of them realize how important knowledge and skills are and unless they’ve gotten sucked into the criminal justice system – they can get their ship onto the right course.

    For those of us who pride ourselves as “Conservatives”, it helps to understand how some kids come up on the “poor” side of life AND to recognize that “free stuff” like tuition is really an investment that will often create a taxpayer as opposed to an entitlement taker.

  6. Dormitories are not appropriate for a community college; it would start us down the slippery slope of providing every excess we associate today with the notion of a 4yr “residential college community.” That’s not what these kids or the State need.

    As for alternative payment, this is well-said: “If there is some desire for a quid pro quo, then frame it in terms of community service after the educational program is completed.” But that opens another, complex discussion I hope we have here someday about civic obligation and service.

  7. I LIKE the idea of trading community service for a debt-free education. Of course, that takes money also…….. ;-). Even when doing Community service someone has to have the means to pay for food and shelter!

  8. I just heard from Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne. The dormitory idea did NOT come from the administration, he said. It’s a bad idea, and the administration does not support it.

    • So, I guess that means the Secretary follows BR, or, at least, somebody in his office or the Governor’s press office follows it and alerts him to items of interest. That’s impressive.

  9. In general we are all reacting to portions or snippets of this plan for expanded VCCS access, and perhaps will have more to say once it is fleshed out. Over the past decade the community colleges have become way too expensive. I’m open to their proposals.

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