“Just a Little Easier”: The Middle-Class Economics of Higher Education

Jeffrey Alan Johnson:

There is also a more ominous challenge to making community college “as free and universal as high school”: high school is, in most of America, neither free nor universal. Students must provide their own supplies nearly everywhere, and the penalty for a student without paper or pen (let alone iPad and home computer) is too often failing grades for not submitting assignments or being kicked out of class for “being unprepared.” Spending four hours a night on homework is 20 hours a week that a student can’t spend working. That isn’t what I’d call free.

President Obama, in the address, praised the “all-time high” national graduation rate of just 80%. One in five students nationally—five out of the 24 students in every American high school classroom—still fails to get a high school diploma. Nearly one-third of Blacks, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives don’t graduate. Thirty-nine percent of students with disabilities fail to graduate. Twenty-nine percent of District of Columbia residents. Thirty-nine percent of men in Mississippi. Forty percent of Blacks in Utah. Forty-four percent of Whites in Hawaii. Forty percent overall, 50% of Latinos, and 63% of Native Americans in Nevada. More than three-quarters of students with limited English proficiency in Arizona or Nevada.

High school is most certainly not universal. Free community college will likely be even less so, especially for members of all kinds of disadvantaged groups. One of those groups, as experience with Medicare expansions shows, will be residents of states that don’t want to kick in their own money.