The "most flexible" institutions in American higher learning should be as automatic as high school, Vice President Joe Biden said in the White House Weekly Address this past weekend.
“It’s simple, folks — two years of community college should become as free and universal as high school is today if we’re to make this economic resurgence permanent and well into the 21st century,” Biden said.
“It’s a simple fact that community colleges are the most flexible educational institutions we have,” Biden said. “Making community colleges free is good for workers, it’s good for companies and it’s good for our economy.”
Biden's address was a follow-up on President Obama's controversial proposal earlier this year to make community college free for kids whose parents earn less than $200,000 a year.
That proposal evoked widely divergent responses from experts at the time. Some feared that it would channel more students into underperforming and underfunded schools. Others thought that it would encourage more middle class students to attend community colleges, broadening their appeal to legislatures.
“Anything identified as 'for the poor' is easier to cut,” Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, told U.S. News. He argued that a “middle-class identity” would offer “political protection” to community colleges.
Reed's analysis on the politics is a direct echo of Franklin Roosevelt's famous 1941 comment about using Social Security taxes to turn the program into a broad-based entitlement rather than a charity program that could be axed.
“We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits," FDR said. "With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”
Arizona offered a case study in such political calculus. The state legislature last month actually zeroed out state support for two major community college districts.
"The cuts are following an annual trend in Arizona in reducing money for higher education," Inside Higher Ed reported, "But what is striking in Arizona is the drop from at least several million dollars to zero."
As things stand, community colleges do struggle to deliver on their promise. As Richard Kahlenberg noted in the Atlantic, "Being cut off from financial and peer resources takes a toll on community-college students today. Research finds that though 81 percent of first-time community-college students enroll in school expecting to transfer to a four-year institution and get a bachelor's degree, just 12 percent end up doing so after six years."
Kahlenberg argues that making community colleges free to middle class kids would enhance their political appeal and create stronger peer effects, energizing the campuses as centers of opportunity.