Flushing More Money Down the Education Toilet

by ROBERT WEISSBERG May 1, 2012

America has suddenly discovered that its workforce quality is not exactly first rate. So, that awkward fact acknowledged, how can we overtake our more studious, enterprising overseas rivals? Encourage youngsters to cut back on video games? Promote a stronger work ethic? Hardly. Rather, our catch up formula remains unchanged from the 1960s Great Society: flush billions down the toilet chasing after some fantasy that will only exacerbate our tribulations. This is not hyperbole. At the risk of appearing "anti-education," let me explain.

The "America needs more college grads" clamor has been around for decades and its latest incarnation comes from American Association of Community Colleges (the AACC represents 1200 schools with 13 million students). It recently issued Reclaiming the American Dream: A report from the 21st- Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, a study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kresge Foundation, ACT, and the Educational Testing Service.

It sounds inspiring: "The American Dream is at risk. Because a highly educated population is fundamental to economic growth and a vibrant democracy, community colleges can help reclaim that dream" and bringing back the dream will, happily, also reduce income inequality.

So, what do these educators propose?  Paring aside the copious high-sounding verbiage and clichés (e.g., "[Moving] From low rates of student success to high rates of student success"), the bottom line is, predictably more funding plus adding an additional 5 million students (especially those previously  under-served) to those already enrolled. In other words, America will be rescued if we just admit more and hire additional administrators and professors.

This seductive strategy will only exacerbate America's educational woes. Though impolite to say so, there is some serious quackery here.

The tip off to deception is the stress on graduation rates, not actual learning. For those familiar with the academy's bag of tricks, this task is remarkably easy. Tactics include "gut" nobody-can-fail courses while other course might only require field trips or scrapbook portfolios, not serious learning. Add tolerated cheating (especially internet plagiarizing) and outright fraud such as no-show Independent Study courses. Even a brain dead student will uncover these life-savers thanks to counselors paid to boost graduation rates. Meanwhile, students will flee teachers who flunk "too many" and thanks to enrollment-defined "productivity," the tough graders will lose their jobs.

More insidious is how the schools themselves top down manufacture empty calorie diplomas. Just offer endless remedial classes to reverse past sloth (even giving academic credit for passing them) and Mickey Mouse majors like Communication Arts. Throw in tutors, paper writing centers and all else needed to keep the academically inept afloat. In an emergency, students might receive credit for passing a proficiency in a foreign language that just happens to be their native tongue.

Anne Arundel CC in Annapolis, MD illustrates this Herculean effort at retention. In its efforts to double the number of graduates without boosting enrollment it redesigned its remedial math classes, students were asked to sign a pledge to graduate (they received "Got Commitment" buttons) while a school website helps professors identify students on the verge dropping out. Meanwhile, the most seriously at risk have twice a week appointments with advisors. That these students could never be college material and were likely to display the same inadequacies in the workplace is, naturally, unspeakable. 

Truth be told, there are already too many students enrolled in community colleges. How else can you explain the current overall drop-out rate exceeding 60% and that more than half require remedial courses?

Flooding America with yet more community college enrollees is pointless though the huge tax-payer bills are very real. Fans of community colleges apparently think like primitive people-the diploma, that fancy parchment, will magically transform slackers into cherished employees.

Further consider the underlying economics, diploma inflation, so to speak. As degrees proliferate, the value of each degree necessarily declines, a supply and demand relationship no different from when a rare high school diploma made a high school graduate a good catch. Now, if nearly all job applicants have Associate Degrees, we return to square one--the employer must investigate each applicant's worthiness by conducting their own tests or scrutinizing transcripts or, just as likely, by personal appearances, family background, criminal record, and past work history. The degree per se washes out.  

The degree will be even further diluted as community colleges reach out to the academically "at risk."Yes, some worthy students might be found here, but more likely, these troubled recruits will mean even more easy courses, soft majors and all the rest to generate watered-down the diploma. An Associate Degree will soon have the same status as a credit card, once a mark of financial worthiness but now signifying almost nothing.

The good news is that far cheaper, more effective alternatives exist. What about requiring hard-nosed nationally uniform exit exams for those acquiring Associate Degrees? No different from the specific high school subject exams offered by ETS but now covering vocationally relevant subjects, e.g. a test on computer repair skills. Professions such as medicine or law have long imposed quality control post graduation to thwart diploma mills.  Imagine if any "medical school graduate" could practice medicine?  That the AACC disdains this quality control mechanism speaks volumes about their commitment to quality versus quantity.

What's wrong with dropping the "college" pretentions of Community Colleges and turning them into trade schools? Eliminate dumbed-down liberal arts and just offer courses with a clear vocational pay-off. Such practicality might work wonders though the big losers would be administrators and professors whose professional identity would be downgraded to "being at a vocational school."

How about establishing government assisted business or union-run apprenticeship programs? Want to learn to administer computer networks? Don't waste two years in a community college. Just apply to an IBM or HP training program and learn marketable skills there. These firms, obviously, will not admit those lacking in aptitude nor tolerate cheating or offer watered-down "gut" courses to inflate success. And rest assured, a certificate from IBM will outshine a degree in Communication Arts from Okefenokee Swamp Community College.

In the final analysis, then, this expensive bloating of community colleges only helps finds jobs for currently unemployed educators. For millions of students it is nothing more than a second chance at high school and as such helps blind us to our inadequate high schools. At worst it will take millions of youngsters and shower then with endless help so as to create yet more dependency in a nation where dependency on government grows by the day. After all, why should students make good employees when they have already seen that repeated failures can be "overcome" with second, third or fourth chances? I suspect that our Chinese and Korean rivals are cheering on our efforts to award empty calorie diplomas to create a "better educated workforce."        

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and  Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs. 

 


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