By David Brooks
All college commencements are happy, but community-college commencements are the happiest of all. Many of the graduates are the first in their extended family to have earned degrees. When their name is read, big cheering sections erupt with horns and roars from the stands. Many students are older; you’ll see 50- or 60-year-old women grasping their diplomas awash in happy tears. The graduates often know exactly where they’re going to work; they walk with an extra sense of security as they head off campus.
These bright days serve as evidence that America can live up to its dream of social mobility, that there is hope at a time when the ladder upward seems creaky and inadequate.
So when President Obama unveils his community-college plan in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, it represents an opportunity — an opportunity to create days like that for more students.
Obama’s headline idea is to make community college free. It would reduce two years of tuition costs to zero for students with decent grades and who graduate within three years.
The evidence from a similar program in Tennessee suggests that the simple free label has an important psychological effect. Enrollment there surged when high school students learned that they could go to community college for nothing.
The problem is that getting students to enroll is neither hard nor important. The important task is to help students graduate. Community college drop out rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.
Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free will do little to reduce that. 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.
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.
The smart thing to do would be to scrap the Obama tuition plan. Students who go to community college free now have tragically high dropout rates. The $60 billion could then be spent on things that are mentioned in President Obama’s proposal — but not prioritized or fleshed out — which would actually increase graduation rates.
First, you’d focus on living expenses. Tuition represents only a fifth of the costs of community-college life. The bulk is textbooks, housing, transportation and so on. Students often have to take on full-time or near-full-time jobs to cover the costs, and, once they do that, they’re much more likely to lose touch with college.
You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors. Community colleges are not sticky places. Many students don’t have intimate relationships with anyone who can guide them through the maze of registration, who might help bond them to campus.
You’d figure out the remedial education mess. Half of all community-college students arrive unprepared for college work. Remedial courses are supposed to bring them up to speed, but it’s not clear they work, so some states are dropping remediation, which could leave even more students at sea.
You’d focus on child care. A quarter of college students nationwide have dependent children. Even more students at community colleges do. Less than half of community colleges now have any day-care facilities. Many students drop out because something happens at home and there’s no one to take care of the kids.
In short, you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.
We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.
Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. Its based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.
The tuition piece of the Obama proposal is Human Capital 1.0. It is locked in 1970s liberal orthodoxy. Congress should take the proposal, scrap it and rededicate the money toward programs that will actually boost completion, that will surround colleges, students and their families with supporting structures. We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.