Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Support our students, just don't give them any help

Clara Bow in her talkie debut, The Wild Party, directed by Dorothy Arzner, 1929.
Shorter David Brooks, "Support our Students", New York Times, January 20 2014:
The problem with the president's plan for universal free community college is that getting students to enroll is neither hard nor important. The important task is to help students graduate. And how is paying their tuition supposed to help with that?
What's interesting today, if anything, is what gets left out of the discussion. For example, according to Brooks:
In the first place, community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.
Or, as Robert Kelchen put it in an essay in Inside Higher Education last October, with reference to the Tennessee program and the proposed one in Chicago, long before Obama's plan was publicly mentioned,
Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, show that 38 percent of community college students had their tuition and fees entirely covered by grant aid. An additional 33 percent of students paid less than $1,000 out of pocket for tuition and fees.
Ooh, David Brooks plagiarism watch! Haven't seen one of those in weeks!

What's missing here is especially two things, the income classes of the grant recipients and the role of Perkins and other loans in the lives of that 33% who got their bills under $1000. Title IV aid for two-year college went to 67.8% of students with household incomes from $0 to $30,000 but only 14.6% of those from $30,001 to $48,000, and obviously less at income levels higher than the shabby remains of what used to be the American middle class.

The number of those needing to take loans has been rising steadily as the purchasing power of the Pell grant declines against rising tuitions: the percentage of students in two-year institutions taking out loans went from 15.3% in 2000-01 (average $3,166 in 2012-13 dollars) to 27.4% in 2011-12  (average $4,826), while the percentage of tuition costs covered by the Pell has declined from 99% in 1979-80 to 52% in 2013-14.

At public community colleges, costs are relatively well covered by existing programs; it's at the for-profit schools that the loans are especially needed:
The percentage of students at 2-year institutions receiving student loan aid was highest at private for-profit institutions (82 percent), compared with the percentages receiving them at private nonprofit institutions (66 percent) and at public institutions (27 percent).
By the way if you want to reduce the catastrophic dropout rates, as Brooks says he does, the main avenue should be to reform those for-profit institutions, which the Obama administration has been really valiantly working at, and increase the number of places available at the public ones, which this increased funding will definitely help with.

Also, Brooks says,
The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.
Or, in Kelchen's words,
Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees has written about how Tennessee’s program will mainly benefit students from middle-income and higher-income families
But the "middle- and upper-middle-class students" don't go to two-year colleges, on the whole.
44 percent of low-income students (those with family incomes of less than $25,000 per year) attend community colleges as their first college after high school. In contrast, only 15 percent of high-income students go to community colleges initially. Similarly, 38 percent of students whose parents did not graduate from college choose community colleges as their first institution, compared with 20 percent of students whose parents graduated from college.
Students from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups are more likely to enroll in community colleges as their first postsecondary institution. Nationally, 50 percent of Hispanic students start at a community college, along with 31 percent of African American students. In comparison, 28 percent of white students begin at community colleges. This picture is even clearer when viewed in terms of race and income. For example, among low-income students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, half begin at community colleges—more than double the rate of their peers from high-income families. There is almost no difference in the proportion of these students who want to go on to complete college compared to their peers.
Community college is a service for poor and minority students, and those driven into near poverty by increasing income inequality. There's no question that more is needed than just tuition assistance to help those people get college degrees, but as Sara Goldrick-Rab argues in The Guardian, the tuition assistance Obama is proposing could be a really big thing.

But the really really interesting thing that's left out is who gave Brooks that October essay on the Tennessee and Chicago plans, and why he didn't credit his source. Because you're not going to tell me he and his intern made a note of it at the time, or that he just happened to be researching the subject after Obama brought it up and read the thing. We've known him far too long, you and I, to imagine him working that way, like a real writer. Besides, if he were he would have made use of more than one source. (That's the reason he doesn't credit it, so you don't realize his bibliography only has one item.) In a blog post of January 8, Robert Kelchen himself is much more positive about the president's proposals than you'd think from the October piece.
  • This sends a clear message that community college is an affordable option for all students. Even though tuition and fees make up a small portion of the total cost of attendance—and it is unclear if all students will see additional savings from this plan—telling students early on that tuition will be free may induce more to prepare for college and eventually enroll.
  • This could potentially encourage students to switch from expensive for-profit colleges to less-expensive community colleges for an associate’s degree. This would reduce their debt burden and maybe encourage them to pursue further education if desired.
  • This program will likely be targeted toward middle-income families who do not qualify for the Pell Grant, but cannot readily afford to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket each year for college. This group is key in building public support for higher education. (I don’t think it would affect the college choices of high-income families, who typically chose four-year institutions.)
  • Covering half-time students in addition to full-time students is a plus, although it remains to be seen whether half-time students would be eligible for additional years at a lower enrollment intensity.
He also sees a bunch of negatives that are worth noting; you should read the whole post. At least one of the negatives is something I regard as a plus, the possibility of public institutions needing to expand at the expense of for-profits, which he fears would cost state governments a lot of money, or as I call it, economic stimulus. But Brooks using his reservations on a bad Chicago plan to attack the quite different nationwide Obama plan is really unconscionable distortion. Of course he has no idea what Kelchen thinks of the Obama plan because he made no effort to find out.

No, some nameless somebody showed it to him, just like somebody took him to Newark to recruit him to write about Shavar Jeffries in last year's mayoral race, and asked him to denounce the Obama plan in his usual creamily respectful but dismissive tone. Mr. Moral Authority is a gun for hire. Maybe the next Blogger Ethics Panel can have a look at it.

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