Should community college tuition be the responsibility of the federal government? Our president apparently thinks so. I say “apparently” because he certainly could have achieved this goal had he made it a priority when his party controlled Congress. Now that his party is in the minority in both houses of Congress, it’s hard to take this proposal seriously.

But let’s take it seriously by asking two questions. Is it a good idea? And, if so, what level of government should underwrite it?

Second — and easier — things first. Tuition rates — or waivers — should be left up to individual states. The original progressives saw the states as experimental laboratories. Why not use that model for an endeavor such as this?

Now for the harder part. Should Minnesota, a state that pioneered the original “junior college” idea, take the lead in providing a tuition-free education for our community college students? In a word, no.

Should prospective college students be encouraged to begin their college careers in our community colleges? In a different word, yes.

Before elaborating on both answers, here’s a bit of “truth in opinionating.” My father was a pioneer of the junior-college movement in Minnesota, heading what was once Brainerd Junior College for nearly 30 years. At the outset of his tenure, Minnesota junior colleges were creations of — and financed by — local school boards. At the end of his tenure, public junior colleges were run by a state board and financed by state government. A graduate of a junior college (Brainerd), I have been teaching at a community college (Normandale) longer than my father presided over his.

Whether in its “junior” or “community” incarnation, the two-year college is a great idea and a very American institution. Not long ago a student asked me if I thought we should copy European countries and fully subsidize a college education. Only if we’re prepared to weed students out — and force them onto certain vocational tracks — at a ridiculously early age, I replied. After all, those same countries don’t expect, want, pay for or even allow everyone to go to college. Only a select few survive for the free ride.

We do things somewhat differently on this side of the pond. Students, no matter their age, station or preparation, are afforded multiple chances at a college education. This should be the case in a country that generally, if imperfectly, tries to live up to its call to provide equality of opportunity.

But no college — community or otherwise — can or should guarantee equality of result. A while ago, an unhappy student came to complain about a failing grade. After a somewhat unpleasant conversation, I pointed to a stack of blue books by way of noting that she was not the only student who had done poorly. Her reaction continued the unpleasantries: “What does that tell you about yourself?”

A rarity for me, I came up with a response at the moment, rather than three days later: “It tells me that I teach at an open-door school that lets anyone enroll and give college a try.”

That line sounds harsher than it was meant to be, both because I believe that such colleges are of vital importance and because I hope that she took advantage of a second chance. But should her chances have been financed by the state? I think not. No matter their circumstances, students need to have a very real sense of their personal or family investment in their education.

Of course, the state has some role to play in this. Of course, GPA “gates” can be established, but I fear this will only add to an already inflated grade-inflation problem. Here is one more “of course”: Higher education is wildly overpriced as it is, thanks in no small part to government loans. The entire system is badly in need of dramatic reform. But community college tuition has to rank near the bottom of any list of necessary reforms.

The same goes for community college access. The original reason for creating the junior college in the 1930s was to provide such access to those who could not afford and/or did not live anywhere close to a four-year college. That access has been multiplied in many ways over the years. And yet in a very different, but nonetheless very real sense, what was true then is also the case today. Then many prospective students simply could not afford college. Today students and their families should not take on the mountainous debt that comes with the four-year college experience. (Whether that experience amounts to an education is another matter.) In any case, that debt level could be significantly reduced if students would spend their first two years at an accessible and affordable community college.

But in the minds of many, a stigma of sorts remains attached to the community college. Maybe there was a time when it was deserved. The Brainerd Junior College that I attended was housed in a barely modified former grade school. Course offerings were quite limited. Credit transferability was far from automatic. None of that exists today. And yet the stigma has not gone away. Ironically, I fear that free tuition will only reinforce it. The local community college? Oh, that’s where you can go for nothing.

It’s important to remember that Obama wants everyone to obtain a college degree. Here, apparently, is one area where this president does not want to copy Europe!

I agree — and disagree — with the president. We shouldn’t copy Europe. But we should also recognize that far from everyone needs or desires a college degree. Finally, we need to reform the entire system before the education bubble bursts. Once it does burst, community colleges will survive and perhaps even flourish, but a lot of four-year colleges will disappear. Such a result might not be a bad thing, but that, too, is another matter. In any case, free community college tuition is not a good first step toward overall reform — especially if it leads to the last step and worst of all worlds, namely free tuition for everyone anywhere and everywhere in the country.

 

John C. (Chuck) Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College.