Wednesday, October 06, 2010

In Praise of Community Colleges

I taught for years at a community college in Maryland and it was a wonderful experience. Older students, students with children, younger students who had experience in the real world -- it made discussions of theoretical issues much more prescient, more meaningful and their anecdotes so much more powerful.

But now, there is a challenge to this educational niche from for-profit colleges (not to be confused with private non-profit colleges). They have a more corporate look, effective advertising, and the sheen of being cutting edge. you've probably seen them advertised in a sidebar on line recently. But they also have a purpose other than education -- profit.

And as a result, their students have incredibly high student loan debts and low employment rates which when coupled mean high loan default rates. Some of these loans are through banks, but many of them are federal grants. An educated workforce is essential in these times where manufacturing jobs are leaving or becoming increasingly technological and the idea that the government would step in to do what they can to help with creating a more educated society is a fine idea. But here, we are being hung out to dry by a scam when there is a better and more economical option available.

Democrats have been holding hearings on this in Congress, but Republicans have been objecting because ideologically, they hold that it must be the case on principle alone that the private sector can do it better and cheaper -- whether they do or not in the real world. We shouldn't hold these institutions to account because they are free market profit driven entities and the market will decide whether they are doing the job or not. Uh huh, right.

What we see here is the higher ed version of the school voucher fight that the conservatives have been waging for decades. For-profit schools will deliver the educational product to clients more effectively and efficiently, they argue, because the profit motive always leads to better means and therefore better ends. But students are not clients and as a teacher I am not a service provider. I'm an educator and that involves a certain sort of human relationship, one that is not reflected in the relationships among those in the marketplace. And as we have seen with health care, when you try to take institutions that are not about fee for service, but about something more humane, reducing them to service transaction sites robs them of their ability to do well what we expect of them. It takes the soul from them and it is within the soul of that institution that its mission and its ability to connect and help reside. Community colleges are part of the soul of our economy and their competitors need to be shown for what they really are.