July 15, 2009
President Barack Obama proposes to spend $12 billion on American community colleges over the next 10 years.
I’ve lost count of how much money this administration plans to spend, and while my instincts have been saying “Ahem!” for months, I endorse this idea in concept — as far as it goes. After listening to a discussion of deficit spending the other night on the Charlie Rose show, I’m convinced that I am the last person to ask whether we should turn off the presses at the mint or put them into overdrive. From what I can tell, those are both good ideas, or — to put it another way — no one knows.
Anyway, the administration argues that this money would not add to the deficit, because it would be offset byending subsidies to private student-loan companies and banks. What impact the end of subsidies would have on the borrowing and banking public, I am not aware. Whenever government says that a spending initiative isn’t going to cost anything, I reach back to check for my wallet.
Deficit or not, Obama proposes to allocate this money for construction, on-line education, and competitive grants. As long as money is no object, those are worthy causes. There is also a provision for performance-based scholarships and for resources to help colleges to better plan schedules around students’ work demands.
I have taught on and off at community colleges for years, and I have been teaching at one since the newspaper industry noticed my obsolesence. Every class I teach introduces me to more men and women who are operating under punishing stress because of their inability to pay tuition and fees, support themselves or their families, and devote the time and energy necessary for a real learning experience. I have had students, sometimes on the verge of tears, tell me that they cannot afford to buy a textbook — and don’t get me started on the price of books and the shell-game of “second editions” — or that they cannot afford to buy a PC or laptop computer to use at home, or even commonly used word-processing software for the ones they have. Frequently, these are the very laid-off or undertrained folks that the President says must be prepared for the future demands of business and industry. If they’re really the point of this program — and as long as we’re going to rob Peter to pay Paul — let’s think first about how that money can fill the basic needs of these eager, talented, strung-out students.