Ed to Congress: Please Preserve the Community College 'Entitlement'
Given an initial $3.5 TRILLION price tag, the barest possible Senate majority, and at least two "centrist" Senate Democrats to sway into agreement, it's entirely predictable that negotiation would chip away at that figure. We should all have expected from the start that President Biden's proposed "Build Back Better" program would be dialed down to a somewhat less eye-popping number.
That said, here are two things to consider:
1. This is a 10-year spending plan and, as such, adds up to about half of what we'll likely spend on national defense over the same period.
2. The income-to-educational-attainment link is about as strong a correlation as anything we've identified that's actually able to be created simply through participation. Thus, when I heard that universal community college might have to go, I was shocked and disappointed.
Those Objecting Would Be Well-Served by Increased Community College Access
According to Ballotpedia, Arizona ranks in the bottom 20 percent of the US for high school graduation rates (75.1 percent). Not surprisingly it also ranks 49th in average education spending per student ($7,208). West Virginia does somewhat better, with a graduation rate of 81.4 percent, and per student spending that ranks it in 20th place ($11,132).
Arizona places 52 percent of its high school graduates in a two- or four-year program within a year of graduation, while West Virginia comes in at a slightly better 52.6 percent. The national average is 69 percent. Surely Senators Manchin and Sinema can appreciate that their states stand to gain more than many others, especially those on the education- and tech-heavy East and West coasts, and Texas, which already meet or beat national averages.
Education Remains a Great Enabler
The correlation between educational attainment and lifetime income remains strong and positive (skim over this 2017 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis "Education, Income and Wealth"). Median lifetime incomes for individuals with a two-year degree run 24 percent higher.
That translates into a difference of more than $300,000 over a 30-year period, not adjusted for inflation. Those who finish four-year degrees, as well as more advanced degrees, do better still, as shown in this chart from a 2011 study from Georgetown University titled "The College Payoff" (see page 3).
Notice that the increment jumps most from two-year (associate's) to four-year (bachelor's) degrees, but keeps adding up as additional attainment comes along. Lifting only half of the eligible high schools graduates to two-year level could affect between 18 and 35 percent of the population, which would be a huge jump in opportunity for those individuals.
From the government's perspective, it also represents a HUGE increase in the tax base from which its own incomes derive.
The Special Mission of Community Colleges
There's an important double-whammy in focusing in on community college, though, as Mr. Biden is right to do. Community colleges are charged specifically with developing the workforces in the communities they serve.
Thus, they take input on what kinds of jobs are most in need of filling, and where demand is projected to occur, then work with employers to develop curricula designed to deliver employees who are ready to show up and be effective as soon as they go to work.
Community colleges are also the focus for retraining older workers who may have been affected by layoffs or industry shifts, and who need to be reskilled so as to remain productive and valuable members of their communities until they reach retirement age (itself, a shifting boundary that now hovers between 67 and 69, on average, and keeps extending further as longevity and improved elder health keep people in the workforce longer).
The double-whammy comes from a general increase in educational attainment bolstered by a laser focus on the kinds of skills and knowledge that employers in the community need to meet their missions and achieve their goals.
Thus, community college is absolutely the right kind of institution to make universal, and to include as part of basic education for all Americans. I urge our Congress to reconsider their understandable desire to control the price for social spending.
Cutting back on universal education is a false economy that reduces long-term income prospects for the population (and improved tax revenues) for a quick and easy spending reduction. Please don't do it!