In a new and very thoughtful blog post, Mike Rose, well known education writer and professor at UCLA, explores a subject on which he is an expert: the meaning of community colleges in the lives of their students. In Rose’s 2012 book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, he declares: “One of the great achievements of American higher education, an achievement uniquely ours, is its continued drive—not without conflict and contradiction—toward wider and wider inclusion. The community college has been especially valuable here…. What has become increasingly clear over the past few decades, however, is that access is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for achieving a robust and democratic system of higher education. It is not enough to let people in the door; we have to create the conditions for them to thrive once inside.”
In his current blog post, Rose considers a book I haven’t read, but plan to find very soon: Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream by Suzanne Mettler. How does public policy address—or for a number of intersecting reasons miss—the needs of the students it is intended to help? Rose is a skilled story teller who depicts the lives of particular students to show how, “The elements of inequality…inadequate aid, diminished student services—interact with the broader dynamics of social and economic inequality in our time: income disparities, unstable housing, food insecurity, cutbacks in social services. There’s an awful synergy here as each sphere of inequality intensifies the other making it increasingly difficult for low-income students to enter and succeed in college.”
Rose describes two years he spent observing a community college in a very poor neighborhood of a big city: “the overall picture (is) one of profound possibility and profound need.” Worries for the students include money, the timing of the arrival of their financial aid, transportation, housing, lack of access to a computer or on-line access. Then there are family and overwhelming work responsibilities with many students patching together several jobs to make ends meet at the same time they are attending school. Personal and family crises for students already living on the edge force them to drop out temporarily and delay completion of certification and degree programs.
The college is at the same time experiencing significant reductions in state funding: “The state’s allocations to its community colleges have been shrinking over the years (down more than 20% over the past two decades) while community college enrollment has been increasing…. The college has had to cut courses and greatly reduce summer offerings, a time when many students pick up general education courses needed for an Associate degree and for transfer. Tutoring and other services have been greatly reduced…” Students struggle to patch together the courses they need to graduate when course offerings are reduced and students’ schedules constrained by work obligations.
Rose highlights a particularly astute observation from Mettler’s new book: an analysis of the logjam of today’s “extreme partisanship and increasing influence of big money.” “Policies are not inert; they need maintenance. There can be flaws in a policy’s originating legislation, for example, inadequate mechanisms to deal with cost increases. Policies can also have unintended consequences, for example, financial aid can be inordinately consumed by for-profit colleges. And other, unrelated policies can negatively affect education policy, for example, the huge drain on state resources by health care and the prison system draws money away from schools. When partisanship is as intense as it is in our time, legislators rarely come together across party lines to address these issues and maintain healthy policy. One exception is when special interests with considerable money—for example, for-profit colleges—intercede to engineer or block movement on a particular policy, often to the detriment of overall education policy and those most in need.”
Of course in K-12 public education ideologically driven partisanship is also a primary reason the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently called No Child Left Behind, is now long overdue for reauthorization and why the U.S. Department of Education has created waivers for which states can apply to escape some of the law’s most onerous consequences. Congress can’t agree, which means we are being governed by administrative rules that have their own dangerous policy consequences. On and on it goes. In today’s highly polarized, ideological, and money-driven education policy landscape, ready solutions are not apparent. We must pay attention to a writer like Mike Rose who helps us see and feel how policies are being experienced by the students whose lives the policies were, we must assume, intended to improve.