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By Tom Cushing

The ?Free? Community College Forum

Uploaded: Jan 28, 2015

One of the more intriguing concepts floated by The Prez* in his recent State of the Union speech touts 'free' community college as a smart 21st century public investment (and, of course, one more reason for young people to vote Democratic in some future election of which he won't partake).

Details are few, so far. And while it is tempting to the ol' perfesser to see it as a natural educational evolution and a bargain at a $6B/year drop in the federal ocean (if true), I have more questions than answers. I'll raise a few here, and hope that any readers with greater knowledge (and not just duller axes) will chime-in.

First: is this a good public investment? The US and other nations have long considered tuition-free, K-12 education to be a good thing for society. 170 years ago, Horace Mann called universal education a 'wellspring of freedom' and a 'ladder of opportunity' for millions. Have we reached a point where informed citizenship requires greater sophistication than a HS diploma provides? (judging solely by certain comments my blogs receive, it's clearly no panacea) Assuming it's well-focused and taught (more on that below), is more universal education an investment we make in ourselves on those terms alone?

Continuing on Mann's themes -- will an extension of universal education make a fundamental difference to the prospects of young people whose worst flaw is growing up in poverty? Tennessee has embarked on a similar plan within its borders: is there evidence that it is providing a route-up, particularly for economically disadvantaged students?

In addition, are we better-off as a society competing in global markets with a workforce that has been more thoroughly prepared? How will this plan impact the USA's overall profile as a place to produce 21st century goods and services? Does America need it to keep up with others? Will it raise the average of American capabilities above those of China, India, Russia or Germany? If so, is that effect enough to justify the cost? Or, in our free labor markets, ought those training costs to be borne by the employers or potential employees who directly benefit? Is this 'corporate welfare,' in addition to being a recipient 'entitlement?'

Second, in terms of bang-for-the-buck, just how well do community colleges perform, as a group and individually? That begs the further question of what we're asking them to do. As an example, when Rahm Emanuel left the White House and became Chicago's mayor, he perceived a disconnect between the regional CCs and regional vocational needs. I understand that he dismantled and refocused those colleges on skills training, and formed relationships with leading local employers. Is that their best role? Is that what they're doing? Are they doing it well, and how would we know?

Third, let's assume for the moment that the answers above are all positive. Then the question becomes: who should underwrite the effort, how, and what standards would/should they enforce? Education gets a dog's breakfast of public funding from federal, state and local sources. Is federal funding a good idea, or is that better left to the locals? And what (inevitable) strings ought to attach to federal aid?

Any thoughts?

Most of the commentary I've seen so far is from knee-jerks who believe that Any (non-defense) spending is bad, and/or that the great unwashed masses ought not to receive a hand-out. They contrast the GI Bill, which has been credited with catalyzing much mid-century economic progress, but was 'earned' as a benefit of direct service, rather than assumed as a matter of mere citizenship. Frankly, I think America's mid-century economic dominance had a lot to do with the rest of the world's industrial capacity smoldering in ruins (hence it deteriorated after 'they' all rebuilt more modern factories), but I am not a student of that history.

Having framed some major issues that I cannot resolve in my current state of understanding, I look forward to hearing back from those who can, or at least think they can. Also, what other issues did I miss?

Please weigh-in -- thanks!

* Sorry, but I cannot abide acronyms like POTUS and SCOTUS. They evoke appliances whose seats must stay down (we're often told) between engagements, and what to avoid scratching in public, and especially during televised football games.