In his Washington Post op-ed, President Obama announced his intention to graduate “5 million more Americans from community colleges by 2020.” If one sweeps past all the familiar Obama boilerplate, one sees that he is setting the stage for yet another massive government production, with all the aplomb of an early-20th-century Progressive rubbing his hands in glee at the number of youths to be processed. (The irony is that the costly, uneven, cumbersome systems of K-12 and higher education that Obama has pledged to reform are the legacy of those same Progressives.)
Yet absent from his column is any consideration of whether community colleges are generally effective or cost-efficient. Ah, well. Who has time to sort out such distractions? Obama is in a hurry to have the feds start “strengthening our network of community colleges” so that they can serve as “21st-century job training centers.” Is there evidence that most community colleges are equal to this task? Not really. Is there evidence that community colleges are especially well-run, or that they are a better option for prospective students than alternative vendors (such as private companies and distance-learning programs)? Not really. Do we know a lot about what good community colleges look like, or how to reduce waste and promote quality? Again, not really.
These are not picayune concerns. America’s 1,200 community colleges enroll more than 11 million students and account for more than 45 percent of all undergraduate enrollment nationwide. The sprawling enterprise is marked by some terrific institutions but also by broad pockets of mediocrity. Community-college systems were sometimes carefully crafted and sometimes jury-rigged to accommodate the explosion of college enrollment in the mid-20th century. One would think that an administration intent on building the educational infrastructure needed to support 21st-century adult learners might want to start by taking a hard look at what is already in place, rather than by rushing to supersize it. But such is not the Obama way.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has promised that his department’s policies will be guided by empirical evidence and hard data. Let’s hope he treats the community-college issue with far more care than President Obama did in his op-ed.
– Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.