Danielle Guerra / Daily Chronicle / AP

There is no such thing as free community college

The skills agenda distorts higher education for working-class Americans

August 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

For many politicians and economists, the way to raise America’s standing in the global economy is to invest in workers’ skills. One way to do that is to make America’s community colleges “free” on condition that they adopt certain business-friendly reforms. 

In January, for example, the White House announced that “Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy” and that the solution is “tuition-free community college for responsible students.” Along the same lines, Congressional Democrats recently introduced the America’s College Promise Act of 2015: The federal government would pay for approximately 75 percent of community colleges expenses, or about $90 billion over 10 years, while states would finance the rest.

The idea for this plan originated in a paper on the free two year college option written by University of Wisconsin professors Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall contend that the current financial aid system betrays the American dream. Too many poor and middle-class students take on heavy loans that must be paid back even if they don’t graduate. This doesn’t help them or society. The authors thus propose “redirecting all federal higher education grants and tax benefits” to cover the costs of two years of college that teach “the skills required to connect and innovate in a global economy.”

Unfortunately, the Barack Obama free community college plan widens the gap between the kinds of education offered by private and public institutions of higher education. More precisely, the free community college plan cements an oligarchic educational system that Americans should oppose. 

Investing in human capital

To understand the move to redesign America’s community colleges to emphasize skills, we may turn to City University of New York urban education professor Joel Spring’s new book, “Economization of Education.”

Spring details how powerful institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, the World Education Forum and the Barack Obama administration all make the same recurrent claims about education. Education grows the economy. Education ends poverty. Education reduces economic inequality. And skills are at the heart of education.

According to proponents of the skills agenda, workers need “hard skills” such as literacy and numeracy and “soft skills” such as grit, perseverance and the ability to delay gratification. Only with such skills will students eventually find gainful employment in the global labor market. What students do not need much of, by contrast, is content knowledge of history, literature or philosophy — or a basis for thinking critically about the current political-economic order.

Spring traces the origin of the skills agenda to the Chicago School of Economics. Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker expresses the core insight of this school in his book “Human Capital”:

The evidence is now quite strong of a close link between investments in human capital and growth. Since human capital is embodied knowledge and skills, and economic development depends on advances in technological and scientific knowledge, development presumably depends on the accumulation of human capital.

According to the skills agenda, the purpose of education is to create human capital. Governments must train future workers so that they might be hirable by multinational corporations and contribute to economic growth. And if there is economic stagnation, it is because workers lack the requisite skills, not because of economic inequality. Don’t bother with a global wealth tax or redistributing wealth in any form; just keep investing in skills until workers earn their share.

A higher educational system geared toward the liberal arts for children of privilege and workforce training for everyone else is not democratic.

The same people pushing the skills agenda would like to redefine college as an industry that trains workers for the global economy. Might young adults spend a few years studying great works of art, literature and philosophy before they enter the workplace? Should college students follow their passions and interests, including in activities such as theater, sports or political activism that they will not pursue as a career? Should they even have a little fun in college?

For partisans of the skills agenda, the answer to these questions seems to be no. Or rather, these kinds of options should only be available for families that can afford them. 

Liberal arts for the few

How else could the federal government spend money to help students go to college? One obvious answer is to augment the Pell Grant program that enables students to choose what kinds of schools they want to attend, including liberal arts colleges or research universities.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall reject this plan, largely because it steers public money to private institutions that are not accountable to taxpayers. Their free two year college option, on the other hand, “will prioritize providers with the explicit, government-backed mandate to serve the public good.” 

Though the America’s College Promise Act of 2015 does not go this far, and will not likely pass a Republican Congress, it is easy to envision the federal government spending more on community college and less on other institutions of higher education.

This is a problem, first, because the community college system will become standardized and geared exclusively towards preparing students to become workers in the corporate economy. The America’s College Promise Act of 2015 specifies that states must adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms,” “promote alignment between its public secondary school and postsecondary education system” and “reduce the need for remediation and repeated coursework.” These conditions signal that states must align their institutions of higher education with the Common Core State Standards and its emphasis on the skills of literacy and numeracy. Community college, in other words, will become the 13th and 14th grades of Common Core.

Furthermore, the gap between the kinds of education offered to rich and poor children will widen in this country. Students at private schools often study the liberal arts, participate in extracurricular activities, spend their junior year abroad and dedicate themselves full-time to their studies. The America’s College Promise Act of 2015 does not make that possible for community college students, the vast majority of whom do not come from wealthy families. In fact, the Act encourages “occupational skills training programs,” an option that few economic or political elites would choose for their own children.

To be clear, not every student has to go to a liberal arts college to lead a satisfying life. But a higher educational system geared toward the liberal arts for children of privilege and workforce training for everyone else is not democratic. It is oligarchic. 

Nicholas Tampio is an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of “Kantian Courage,” “Deleuze’s Political Vision” and many academic articles. He is writing a book on democracy and national education standards. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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