Funding choices

One Obama-Biden campaign promise is to make government run more efficiently – by connecting disjointed programs, increasing transparency, and fully funding programs so they might actually deliver results.  This promise is nothing new, but I’m hoping the Obama’s team’s technological savvy and the Democratic legislative majority behind him translates into some real improvements.  That said, what’s the point in fully funding or linking questionable and bad programs and policies, such as No Child Left Behind or welfare-to-work initiatives?

I say this because the Bush Dept. of Education is pushing a much needed streamlined higher ed financial aid process that to me has one fundamental flaw: its calculation of aid based on the average cost of a two-year college.  They estimate that this would cover for the neediest students 100% of the cost of a community college, 60% of a four-year public college, and one-third of the cost of a four-year private institution.

Led by the Gates Foundation, and suggested in this financial aid change, there appears not only a growing emphasis on improving access to community colleges, but an increasing push to help students graduate from community colleges.  But how does this help us reduce our record socioeconomic inequality, when the differential returns of a bachelor’s degree (or higher) versus a high school diploma has been the single largest cause of rising economic inequality since 1980? (see pp.7-9)

I am not sure what the wage returns are for an associate’s degree.  What I do know is that among the U.S. adult population, 70% have a high school diploma, 19% have a bachelor’s degree, 17% have some college education, 10% have a master’s or higher, and only 8.5% have an associate’s degree.  Well, you wonder, perhaps an associate’s degree is uncommon because students are transferring to four-year colleges from community colleges.  Maybe, but I’m not optimistic.

Studies in the past have shown that students who successfully transfer from two-year to four-year colleges do as well as their peers who started at baccalaureate institutions to begin with — but the problem is getting to that point.

A working paper circulated in September by the National Bureau of Economic Research takes a look at the entire pathway, from community college to bachelor’s degree, and compares students’ success over a nine-year period with their peers who began at four-year colleges. Like previous studies, it found a significant “penalty,” or decreased likelihood of completing a degree, for students who started out in community colleges compared to those who started at four-year institutions.

Although it conflicts with some efforts to expand access to higher education, the implication is that students with the desire to earn a four-year degree would be better off if they started out at four-year colleges rather than trying to transfer out of a community college.

Other research supports this finding, though it is important to note that students who start at community colleges with the explicit goal of earning a bachelor’s are more likely to do so.  Nonetheless, even many of these students can find the combined hurdles of their relative financial disadvantage and higher education to be insurmountable.

The bright line separating students who matriculate at community colleges versus those who start at four-year colleges is $$$$$$$.  Community college students are far more likely to have financial hardships, and to be older and an ethnic/racial minority than students at four-year colleges.  Given that wealth inequality is extremely racialized in the U.S., that the cost of higher ed is rising twice as fast as inflation, and that the cumulative economic returns from at least a bachelor’s degree is so significant, why is our government sending a message that paying for community college is all they’re willing to do?  Why are we so set on maintaining stratification in this country?

Red Queen has more on Obama’s plans to continue the devastating impacts of welfare reform.  I come at this as a student in a state that provides far less financial aid to its students than the national average, in part because a higher percentage of us attend private universities, which MA assumes will cover the costs of tuition.  I’m the only person in my dad’s family to attend college – out of 20 or so of us spread across three generations.  Hardly the American Dream come to fruition, don’t you think?

Perhaps obvious by the rambling nature of this post, I could be undermining the value of a community college education; this is not my policy area by any means.  But I am in my 11th year of post-secondary education (F*CK THAT’s INSANE) and so I’m certainly familiar with the byzantine and rather punitive reality of financial aid.

Count me as one of the many who wonders how truly innovative Obama will be in charting a new course for the country.  I’d love to see him back away from questionable social and economic development programs like HOPE VI and welfare-to-work that offer so little help to the people they target.  I’d love to see universal four-year public college access, permanent affordable housing with fully funded capital improvement and operating budgets, and transit systems linking people to schools and jobs from their homes.  The money is there. Is the political will?


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