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It seems extremely likely that President Joe Biden’s plan for a free community college will not succeed if / when the Build Back Better plan passes Congress.

While not entirely surprising, it is still disappointing, as the plan had the potential to disrupt a status quo that makes any progress towards equity in education nearly impossible.

As Alexis Gravely reports, here at Inside higher education, a consortium of thirty-two education and civil rights groups, including the Education Trust, the NAACP and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, issued a statement “condemning” the decision.

Major higher education associations were absent from this statement.

In fact, as stated in the the Wall Street newspaper, lobbyists for four-year colleges have spoken out against free community colleges “because four-year institutions fear it will reduce their bottom line.”

This is why we cannot have beautiful things, or rather, why the finest things will remain confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. I often share this observation from the Chancellor of Cal-Berkeley, Carol Christ, I will do it again here: “Colleges and universities are basically about enrolling students for tuition. “

As long as that is the case, as long as institutional income is tied to individual students, paid out of pocket, or bundled with grants, scholarships, or other Pell aids, we have what Brendan Cantwell and others call it a “quasi-market system,” in which institutions compete in zero-sum competition with each other.

It is terrible that four year old institutions are opposing the adoption of an initiative that would benefit so many low income students.

Is it worse that our current system of higher education makes lobbying against free community colleges an entirely rational act, perhaps even necessary for the good of these individual institutions.

A free community college under the Build Back Better plan was a chance to break away from this quasi-market system and establish a mechanism where funding comes from a federal / state partnership, with federal money being subordinated to sufficient state contributions.

In Sustainable. Resilient. Free. : The future of public higher education, I argue that free public higher education is a necessity for three main reasons:

1. Direct funding of public higher education is the only way to increase funding for historically underfunded institutions. As long as we have a system where schools compete for prestige and where prices and income follow prestige, those whose mission is focused on access and opportunity will be at a disadvantage.

2. Direct funding of public higher education will be a more efficient and cost effective use of the money the federal government already spends on failed attempts to make colleges affordable.

3. Direct funding of public higher education will allow institutions to move away from an operational orientation (How to enroll students in order to recover their tuition fees?) Staff and the community in which the institution works?)

Some things seem unmistakably true to me if we are honest with ourselves:

1. The status quo hinders progress towards a missionary orientation.

2. A significant proportion of four-year-old institutions and their leaders are satisfied with the status quo which favors competition and status over access and fairness.

This is a system that literally makes no sense if access and opportunity are our goals for our post-secondary institutions. This suggests that the rhetoric around access and opportunity is a fig leaf to maintain a status quo that is actually fueled by inequality.

One of the reasons I am arguing for a period of free public higher education – two and four year institutions – is because of this specific scenario. It is difficult to get people to do the “right” thing when it may not be in their immediate best interest.

Yet I think the lobbying of four-year institutions against free community colleges is woefully short-sighted and inevitably only leads to a continuing spiral of austerity, to greater gaps between the haves and have-nots of higher education. , and to move further away from the values ​​of these institutions. claim to believe in (opportunity, access) but don’t seem willing to really live by.

The free community college was a chance to break the spell of the status quo, but too many people in higher education refuse to play the long game and think systemically and structurally.

It really is the free university or bankruptcy for the public sector. Right now, the bust seems inevitable. Starting with a free community college would have been a clear step in the right direction for all public institutions, and even private institutions that are already focused on access and opportunity.

I wanted to believe that four-year-olds would see the long-term wisdom of a free community college plan that disrupted a system that is doing them so much harm, but maybe that was naive.

It’s a shame that this opportunity is slipping away. Rather than asking elite institutions to use their massive endowment gains to push the needle on equity, as my fellow IHE blogger Steven Mintz recently did, maybe we tax those gains and use us the proceeds to fund institutions that already focus on equity.

There’s still a way to make this necessary transition without falling into the zero-sum trap, but it looks like some of those higher up the ladder are determined to waste the opportunity while they’re still someone. one on the rungs below them.


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