Focusing on the Wrong Things

Why in the world are we (Obama) talking about a free Community College when we haven’t solved the problems in the free kindergarten through 12th grade system? Over 20 percent of the students don’t graduate now (higher for minorities), a little over three percent drop out, and colleges are complaining that too many of the kids who do graduate aren’t prepared for college and require remedial classes.

Not only that, the programs developed to create higher standards in the public pre-college schools – No Child Left Behind and Common Core, for instance – may or may not be working, depending upon to whom you listen. In either case there is a broad revolt by parents and educators alike against the over-testing of students in the one and the impracticality of implementing the other. Good intentions were the motivators in both cases and each garnered considerable bipartisan support (translate that into $$$) and on paper look pretty good. From what I hear from teachers and parents and students, the problem is that these programs don’t fit the reality on the ground.

Whose fault this is I don’t know. Maybe the programs need tweaking; maybe there needs to be a better commitments from teachers, parents and students; maybe we need to start over. Either way, the focus has to be right there. Nor do I believe the solution lives in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy or political ideologues. In a country this large and complex, laying it on from the top won’t hack it.

In the meanwhile, the proposal has a price, with money to be taken partly from parental programs designed to help fund traditional colleges, and partly with new money. To re-orient ourselves, let’s recall that in 2008 the talk was about a horrific $10 trillion government debt. Well, it is $18 trillion now and rising someone said at about $1 million a minute (Yes. The annual deficit has decreased, but it’s still a deficit adding to the debt).

But, back to the colleges. The cheapest we have are the community colleges whose costs are not only more reasonable than college and universities, but direct federal grants for needy students nearly eliminate tuition costs. There are other costs, of course, such as transportation, lodging, child-care, and so forth. However, by and large, community colleges offer cheap tuition, easy admission and flexibility that fits schedules and pocketbooks for many who are starting over, one way or another.

The issues remain the local systems as well the cost of other colleges. Liberals are promoting free college like those in some countries of Europe. However, no one talks about how different European colleges are. The focuses are intense. You pick your track early and stay on it. In fact, some have to decide in high school – trades or professions. College campuses are building and libraries. Different at best. Exchange students I have talked to – from Spain, France, Bosnia, Germany and Moldova – all noted that American high schools were much easier than theirs. If they are accurate, it offers lessons that can be applied here.

Want to achieve results? Raise standards and expectation. Want to cut college costs? Eliminate all the frills from fancy dorms and recreation centers to counseling services. Initiate year-round school. Reduce four-year college to three. Fewer might want to go. Lack of demand drives down costs. Of course, the intent is to get more to go to college as defined as a four- year academic institution. A question might be whether or not that’s the right path.

The solutions always seem to be to throw more money at the problem when the real answers might lie in changing the structure of the problem.

Somethin’ on My Mind is an opinion column written by Bill Northrop. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gabber publishers, staff or advertisers. Contact Bill at

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