Community-CollegesI certainly can join the chorus opposing President Barack Obama’s scheme to make the federal government the dominant partner in making community college free. That much money will be accompanied by a corresponding amount of regulation. Insofar as possible, community colleges should be community colleges, or creatures of states and localities. Not only that, community college education is free, or close to free—with the aid of, for example, the indispensable Pell Grant or, in Georgia, lottery money—in many cases already, and modest borrowing does give students an incentive to finish what they have started. The most depressing stat about community college is the low percentage of students actually finishing degrees.

Having said that, I have to go on to praise the successful effort of our governments in contributing to equal educational opportunity through community colleges. Only in America is a shot at college available to anyone who can get a GED (or, of course, actually graduate from high school). It is really true that most community college education is about picking up basic competencies that should have been acquired in high school. Some say that a downside of focusing on these remedial efforts is that it takes the pressure off our high schools to do their “college-and-career” jobs. But nobody really knows how to fix many of our failing secondary schools and the Common Core is going to work about as well as No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, we have an undeniable crisis of competence that is one cause of our shrinking middle class, failing families, and all that.

There is a highly accomplished Ph.D. in philosophy who taught at Berry College last year and is currently teaching at a community college. He was told to be easy on his students, which means giving them good grades if they really try. It is true that many of his students do not really know how to read and write much, so he is knocking himself out using philosophy as a means to upgrade their basic skills. Is this better or worse than a philosophy course at Berry College? Well, it might be that the students are learning more that they really need to know.

Our best high schools are better than ever. Even at my non-elite Berry College, students are showing up with lots of Advanced Placement credit. At the elite colleges and universities, admission itself is evidence of a high level of competence or readiness for the workforce. Learning a lot in college is a lifestyle option for such students, and the perception of their high level of competence is propped up by shameless grade inflation.

But most of our high schools are worse than ever. Students too often are basically warehoused to graduation and very little personal development is going on. Nobody thinks that the high-school diploma is a reliable indication of preparation for much of anything. Most of these unlucky kids should not be talked into borrowing money to go to unselective residential or other private colleges, where so often they continue to slide by in a kind of debtors’ paradise with very little “value added.” The opportunity of community college is what we owe them. For those who go on to earn an undergraduate degree somewhere else, the cost has been halved. And by showing their promise in community college, they sometimes qualify for much better financial-aid deals.

Not only that, our high schools have largely abdicated their traditional role of providing techno-vocational preparation. Community colleges, including technical colleges, again step up to do what high school might have done.

I do not want to create the impression that there are not able and accomplished students attending community colleges. Some start there out of simple good sense, or by choosing, or having to choose to combine higher education and real work. From everything you read, it might be much better for a young person’s soul to stay at home than to move into one of the no-rules dorms. And it is also good to be able to interact with all of the non-traditional students, who have the maturity that comes from experience.

Well, experience does not always lead to maturity, as we see with the diverse group of blunders on television’s cult-classic Community. It might mean something that the only television show ever to have displayed college life as a community devoted, despite it all, to personal and intellectual development, is about a community college.

Community college is almost always matter-of-fact enough not to be dragged into disputes over hate speech, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and all that. And career faculty, who have heavy teaching loads, are rarely disfigured by some unearned sense of entitlement. They do not get sabbaticals or “release time” for publishing or any of the perks their colleagues at fancier and more pretentious places take for granted. They have to find personal fulfillment in returning to the beginning time and again. That does not mean they are not literate and cultured people in their personal lives—and even published authors.

Here is a trend I have noticed among homeschoolers and other parents fed up with public secondary schools. When your kid turns sixteen, have him or her take the GED and move on up to community college. I know two young women who followed this route and ended up having Ph.D.’s in political science when they were twenty-four. My kid, you say, will miss the “general education” and residential experience of the first two years of college. Well, in many or most cases, he or she would not have missed all that much. And you will have saved big.

Our local community college has enough capable and highly motivated students to have an impressive honors program. It also has been distinguished for more than a couple of decades by a demanding nursing program with a close-to-perfect placement rate. Nursing is the one college major I can think of where a relevant job is available for just about everyone who completes the program. Our local community college has been graced by some highly qualified and devoted instructors who have become prominent members of the community.

The takeaway: I am against the president’s scheme, but I am all for thinking about how we can make our community colleges better and even more accessible.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2014 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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