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The Trojan Horse of “Free” Community College

Are the strings attached to “free community college” something that will fundamentally change the nature of the institution?

President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college should excite me, as a community college professor who works daily with those students perched precariously on the outermost edge of higher education – undocumented immigrants, high school drop-outs, homeless teens, former prisoners – all arriving to campus striving for the safety, security and affluence of middle-class American life. And while students hold on tight to the edge of the ivory tower, I’ve seen many fall off despite their best efforts, passion and potential, dragged down and out of the classroom by the gravity of this poverty. And these are just the students that show up to class – all too many can’t even get a fingerhold, as they are so bogged down by just trying to make ends meet that coming to an “open-access” community college isn’t a plausible option.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1960, California’s master plan for higher education – which soon became the model for the country – sought to provide a world-class education for all California students, not just those who could afford it. There were no fees, and all were accepted at some point in the system. For many, community college was the first stop on a journey that would take them to prosperity – financial, intellectual and democratic. And while community college is still accessible for many, the ideal of “open access” has been increasingly blocked: It’s not just the rising fees for students, but cuts that restrict access in invisible ways – fewer course offerings, fewer support services and fewer full-time instructors to help students find their way, and not fall away.

So doesn’t Obama’s proposal harken a return to the golden age of the California master plan?

Rather than usher in a golden age, I worry it will signal the end of an era – the end of community college. While I welcome a return to the open-access model, in which high-quality higher education is free to the student, the cost of Obama’s proposal may be too high – and I don’t mean in taxpayer dollars.

I worry that “free” college may be a Trojan horse for implementing a Race to the Top (RTTT) for higher education, which has been a disastrous policy for K-12 education. RTTT, which is essentially No Child Left Behind rebranded, uses the force of the federal government to institute a regime of standardized testing and so-called “competition,” which has narrowed the curriculum (especially in poor schools, which many of my students come from), emphasizing only reading and math, and tossing aside the arts, sciences and other areas which can’t be tested. Beyond this, RTTT has wrested control of classrooms out of the hands of educators and communities, and placed them into the hands of distant technocrats in the federal government and corporate America.

“Free” college might mean that community colleges would cede local, community control to the federal government; thus, the policies of Washington and corporate America would drive the curriculum, rather than the needs of the community. And based on what we’ve seen with RTTT, it’s likely that community colleges again would become junior colleges – designed primarily as trade schools, or for transfer, with a focus on getting students in and out the door as fast as possible, using standardized, impersonal methods more focused on efficiency than education.

I worry that my students are most likely to get the wrong end of this bargain. While community college may be free, will it still be community college?

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