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.