A Good Way To Make Poor Kids $1 Million Richer

April 27 (Bloomberg) — Anyone with half a brain knows that bolstering the middle class is critical to securing the future of the U.S. It’s a matter of national self-interest.

Setting aside the misery of poverty for a minute, the rich need a skilled middle-class workforce to make their businesses successful or they won’t stay rich for long.

Skills, of course, require education, which is why it’s nutty that Republican House members want to cut Pell grants and are making unreasonable demands in the debate over preventing the federal interest rate on student loans from shooting up. But conservatives have a point that a lot of federal support goes to students who don’t finish community college.

We need to move faster to improve these schools. They aren’t Harvard — and they might not be sexy to talk about on the campaign trail — but they make up a growing share of the college market. And nowadays they are the primary engine powering people into the middle class.

Unfortunately, these institutions are often failing. The overall graduation rate for two-year community colleges (measured after six years from entrance) is only about 25 percent. In Chicago, it’s a pathetic 10 percent, which led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to blow up the system and turn over much of the curriculum to local employers looking to train workers in health care, hospitality and the like. He explained to me recently that the city has an unemployment rate of close to 10 percent and 100,000 job vacancies because not enough people are trained. If he can’t fix the community colleges, he can’t fix Chicago.

Even the good programs have trouble achieving graduation rates of more than 50 percent. Part of the problem is that we haven’t marketed the value of a degree properly to families where no one has gone to college. They need to know that unemployment for college graduates is about 4 percent, compared with about 9 percent for those with only high-school educations.

Graduates with even a two-year degree earn almost one-third more a year on average. If they manage to get a four-year degree, their lifetime earnings will be about $1 million higher than if they only finish high school, a point that should go on billboards. (“Want a Million Bucks? Finish College.”)

There are lots of reasons students don’t finish, most of which have to do with money (note the importance of Pell grants) and family issues. The biggest problem is that two-thirds of those headed for college graduate from high school without basic reading, writing and math skills. According to Education Department research, the rigor of a high school’s academic program is a better predictor of college graduation than race, family income or level of parent education.

When students arrive at community college, they encounter remedial programs that are often taught horribly by professors who don’t want to be there.

“The assessment system is broken, and the curriculum out of date,” says Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, who ran a large and successful community-college system in California. “Remediation is in the 18th century.”

Kanter has started an aggressive community-college completion agenda that includes gathering basic data on how students are prepared in high school; setting college-completion goals; making it easier to transfer credits; reducing college costs to stabilize tuition growth; and other initiatives. But the Education Department’s College Completion Tool Kit is missing a critical strategy: overhauling the community-college guidance system.

If we are to transform these colleges (and thus save the middle class) we must rethink a guidance system that often has a ratio of one counselor for every 1,000 students, according to Kanter. No wonder so many students slip through the cracks and drop out.

Why do we have this preposterous system? Because academic “professionalism” has run amok. Guidance has developed into a specialty that requires significant training. This is necessary for dealing with troubled kids and specialized career counseling. But most students just need a faculty member on campus to connect with on their academic program and get referred somewhere if they need more help. Training faculty in such skills could be done in a couple of days.

Instead, many parts of the country have unionized community-college systems, which means any effort to ask teachers to serve as advisers (the tradition in private high schools and colleges) must become subject to collective bargaining.

“For community colleges that are unionized, you’d have to negotiate,” Kanter says. The unions, she argues, would say the faculty’s not qualified. “I disagree. Anyone in the institution should help students negotiate personal and institutional barriers.”

Kanter is saying the right things about guidance. But she and her boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, need to challenge the faculty and guidance-counselor unions just as they have teachers’ unions in elementary and secondary education.

They need to make clear to community-college presidents that it’s all hands on deck — every faculty member at every institution must be engaged in the vital work of keeping students in school. Otherwise, we’re all going down together.


(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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