Higher Education

Dissent from Obama Plan to Make Community College Free

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Earlier today I posted approvingly about President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free for all who work for it, meaning, “Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.” In the announcement, the White House said that his proposal is similar to one enacted in Tennessee by Republican Governor Haslam.

Dissenting readers feared this plan would be a means of imposing NCLB, Race to the Top, and VAM on higher education.

Here is an email I received with other concerns from a professor of mathematics at the University of Memphis:

Dear Professor,

Perhaps you are aware that President Obama is visiting Knoxville, TN, today to talk about his free community college program

http://wate.com/2015/01/08/pres-obama-to-propose-free-community-college-program/. Please see the short video in the bottom of the even shorter announcement.

I think there are many people who (should) have a less than enthusiastic take on this proposal, since it is just a manifestation of the national movement to privatize public education.

In my opinion, the idea behind this free community college proposal is to weaken high quality education (public universities), and then easily implement privatization in the form of outsourcing university/college functions (teaching, research) to private companies. Part of this future will be the wide spread use low quality forms of education, such as online courses.

Concrete example for transferring funds from high quality education to lower quality

Here is a concrete example from my university, The University of Memphis (UofM), that should give a pause to the celebration of free higher education. Last year, shortly after the announcement of a $20 million cut to UofM’s budget, came the announcement of Tennessee Promise that offers free education to all TN residents at public community colleges. In my opinion, TN Promise is a perfect example for taking money away from high quality education (UofM, in this case), and use the extra funds to invest in low quality education (community colleges). Then this lower quality education is offered to the masses as a solution to their educational needs.

To make the high-to-low quality education transformation explicit, I remark that we at UofM are now pressured to start accepting lower level courses to our major requirements to “ease the transition of students from community colleges to our university”.

This transformation to low quality education is, of course, quite similar to what’s happening in K-12 education. In Tennessee, the Achievement School District takes over schools, fires the teachers, then the teachers get replaced by young underpaid, undertrained teachers. This scheme is presented as a solution to the educational needs of the poor.

In other words, both in higher and K-12 education, low quality alternatives are offered to the poor with obvious social (and often racial) implications.

Weaken the opposition: eliminate the tenure system

The first step in the privatization movement is the weakening of the opposition. Community colleges have a much greater number of adjunct faculty than 4 year colleges. Adjuncts are much easier to control than tenured faculty. This is one of the reasons Gates is supporting community colleges instead of 4 year colleges. It’s “educational” to listen to him as he answers a question about why he focuses his efforts to community colleges and especially why he prefers adjunct professors over tenured ones; just watch this for, say, 3 minutes

At UofM, the total salary increase of all employees between 2009-2014 was $10 million. Most of this increase went to increase administration and temporary faculty. The total salary of tenured faculty during these 5 years not only didn’t increase but got reduced.

So again, the strategy of the privatizers seems clear: strengthen community colleges at the expense of 4 year colleges. Weaken the power of opposing tenured professors so that then the privatization of public higher education can be accomplished much easier with the easily controlled adjunct faculty. To be sure, the privatization has been happening. In an earlier email, I reported to you the concerete example of a $5 million/ year teacher training program to be run by Relay and TNTP on the UofM campus, but there are other examples for outsourcing university functions to private companies.

Publicize the privatization scheme and the associated statistics

In my opinion, it would be important to publicize the general scheme of the privatizers so that people would recognize them. In some cases, like TN Promise, it’s not so easy to recognize the underlying motivation.

Also, it would be important to be able to support claims by numbers. It would be great to encourage people to find out, publicize and regularly update the following numbers for their school district (they are not easy to obtain, though they are supposed to be public records)

1) The names and number of schools that are taken over by charterizers (like the Achievement School District in TN).

2) The number of teachers fired during the take over.

3) The average salary of the fired teachers.

4) The average salary of the newly hired teachers.

In (4 year) public colleges, it would be important to publicize and maintain

5) The total salary increase for the last 5 and 10 years.

6) The total salary increase of the permanent (tenured) faculty for the last 5 and 10 years.

7) The total budget allocated to private companies in each of the last 5 years.

The stats in 5) and 6) above are not difficult to do, and can be done using publicly available salary databases. I’d be happy to show anybody what and how I did at UofM.

Best,

Mate Wierdl

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