New and Better (not Just Cheaper) Community Colleges

As I write this, DC waves a final good-bye to another round of public subsidies for community colleges. In its major parts, President Biden’s “free community college” proposal is not to be.

Below, I explain why I am relieved that the proposal stalled.

I also argue for what I think should come next in public policy for community colleges: new policy (read: accreditation reform) that clears a tightly regulated path into the community college sector for clever, nonprofit community college startups.

Eulogizing the Free Community College Proposal

The on-the-ground situation at our community colleges is problematic, factually. I wrote about this at length last week.

The short version of the facts:

  • US community colleges are beset by low graduation rates, offer mixed employment returns to their graduates, and often create serious setbacks in the professional and personal lives of their many dropouts.
  • Community colleges are generally inhibited from true innovation. Like most colleges, they are often stuck in fixed costs, fixed staff, and fixed revenue models. Even with motivated leadership, community colleges typically cannot truly innovate. They are immobilized.
  • Despite their short-comings and stasis, community colleges operate mostly free from meaningful accountability (from public agencies or private accreditors) and without pressure from new entrants (accreditors generally block new entry in higher education), even as they soak up public funding (80% of community college revenue originates in public subsidies already).

On these facts, I am relieved that DC walked on the free community college proposal.

  • Relieved because the plan unnerved me in how blithely it further subsidized and cemented in place community colleges without a plausible, intellectually honest treatment of their low graduation rates, erratic employment outcomes, and disinclination towards true innovation.
  • Relieved because the proposal ultimately struck me as the government (again) pushing not-good-enough public education on students (many of them low-income, of color, and short on alternatives), instead of running the harder policy miles towards excellent (not merely cheap and available) options.
  • Relieved because the proposal failed to create accountability for struggling community colleges, to reward materially community colleges that perform, or seed true innovation in the space. An element of the proposal (which survived into law) set aside $500 million in federal grants to community colleges doing work to improve their graduation rates. This program, while laudable, strikes me as immaterial in a sector with $68 billion in revenue. The community college sector has swallowed checks larger than that.

Our community college students do not just need cheaper community colleges. They need excellent community colleges.

Defend the Students. Not the Status Quo.

It pains me to have such little faith in the capacity for re-invention and step-change improvement in typical community colleges.

It pains me because, like most Americans, I am devoted to community college students and to the important case study they present on whether our country can (re)establish social and economic mobility.

It might be only a small exaggeration to say that as community college students go, so goes US higher education.

Recall, our country is home to 5.6m community college students who make up 30% of the college sector. For me, they are the most important people in US higher education, the ones most in need of solutions.

But, to be devoted to community college students does not imply endorsing the institutions that serve them and funding them further in their current mode, though that is the popular view in most of the polite circles in which I travel.

It’s the other way around, actually.

To support community college students requires unflinching objectivity about the status quo institutions that educate them and an interest in far-reaching policy change.

A Call for Tightly Monitored, Nonprofit Community College Startups

If more money for community colleges — otherwise left mostly unchanged and unchallenged — is not the best policy answer, then what is?

The answer, to me, is new policy that encourages innovation and competition inside the community college sector from a new crop of tightly regulated, nonprofit community college startups.

Our community college sector needs innovation urgently – innovation that uncovers, refines, and scales college models far less expensive to our governments and far more successful at graduating students and qualifying them for good jobs.

I think break-through designs of this sort are possible, and I think the only plausible way to trigger them is to create a pathway into the sector for nonprofit entrepreneurs who — free from the fixed costs, fixed models, and fixed mindsets of the incumbents — can take a fresh run at the problem.

Clearing a path into higher education for nonprofit college startups will require policy makers to confront higher education’s accreditation system and to unwind its ability to block entry in higher education.

One concrete version of my policy recommendation is to create a new national accreditor with jurisdiction over nonprofit college startups, particularly ones in the community college sector.

  • This novel accreditor would specialize in reviewing, approving, and monitoring high-quality, nonprofit college startups that focus on large-scale reductions in delivery costs and on outstanding degree completion and job placement rates.
  • The new accreditor would give community college startups wide discretion in their designs and, in exchange for access by these new nonprofit colleges to federal financial aid, would demand mercilessly that they share data on their outcomes, lower costs, and improve graduation and job placement rates. The accreditor would be hawk-like in its demand for outcome accountability and would be unafraid to sanction or de-accredit efforts that do not thrive.
  • Unlike our current accreditors, this new accreditor would be designed intentionally to avoid conflicts of interests with the colleges it regulates. For example, it would not employ or name as trustees current or former employees of colleges in its portfolio. Nor would it charge fees from colleges that it regulates.

This goal – redoing accreditation to clear a way for new nonprofit arrivals in the community college space – will require enormous political will. I am not holding my breath. But I am hopeful. Well-regulated, nonprofit college startups should, in any reasonable version of the future, be a matter of bipartisan support.

If nonprofit community college startups were invited into the college sector and, over time, were able to field and perfect designs with lower costs and better outcomes, then student response would be swift. Millions of community college students – with Pell Grants and public loans in the pocket — shop annually among incumbent community colleges.

Today’s community college students exercise choice. What they lack are new and better choices. When they get them, they will vote quickly with their feet.