“Free” community college will make a bad situation worse

In his State of the Union address, President Obama pitched his plan for making two years of community college as “free and universal in America as high school is today.” He thinks it would be a great thing. But at the community college where I taught English from 2007 to 2010, Georgia Perimeter College, the joke was that it was already an extension of high school. (And that meant our notoriously undemanding and chaotic public high schools.)

America’s College Promise, as Obama’s still-undefined plan is called, covers all tuition, even for students who can afford to pay, and demands only a 2.5 grade point average. If adopted, this plan will only lower the already low demands placed on students at our community colleges. Guaranteed free college will exacerbate an already bad situation—of students accepting federal aid but then working little, failing classes, and dropping out.

I taught at two of the six Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) campuses around the metro-Atlanta area. Some motivated and qualified students took advantage of the convenience and low cost of the education offered at the campuses, but on both I found a large share of the students unprepared and unmotivated.

Bulletin boards were peppered with messages about study habits. But these were what one would expect on a third-grade bulletin board, like “Do the assigned reading,” “Ask for help in the ‘student success center,’ and “Get plenty of sleep.”

Indeed, I had many of the discipline problems that high school teachers experience. Students who had their textbooks paid for with Pell grants could not be bothered to bring them to class, much less read them. (Or they just pocketed the cash and did not buy the books.)

They sat in the back of the room, eyes glazed or with their heads down on their desks. They had no shame when I called on them to answer a question about the reading, nor when I tried to make a joke about going home to take a nap.

Many felt free to stroll in and out of class. The problem became so bad that some instructors started locking out late students. However, we were advised by the administration that we could not legally deny students access to class because they were late.

Although I tried to teach to the small minority of motivated students, I found the constant distractions, including Internet surfing, texting, and talking, draining. I also found that the capable students became impatient with my need to reprimand others or to repeat lessons in basic grammar.

Many of the students had been led to believe that they had the ability to earn four-year degrees. I remember one student, who intended to become a teacher, getting so frustrated over a basic rule of grammar in a remedial composition class that she erupted with accusations of my incompetence.

Another student, a middle-aged woman who was clearly too advanced for the class, patiently abided such outbursts. She also abided the outburst from me when a young man in the back of the classroom insolently put his booted feet on his desk and leaned back in his chair. That was one of the occasions when I had to order a student to leave the classroom. He refused, and it was only after I threatened to call security that he stomped out of the room. (Later I learned that his parents were forcing him to attend.)

I had to call security on more than one occasion.  Indeed, the number for the campus police was included on our orientation materials and for the purpose of dealing with threatening students.

After I enlisted the help of security, I was sometimes made to feel that I was at least partially responsible for the student’s behavior. On at least one occasion I was asked by the assigned supervisor to talk it out with the offending student.

School officials usually insist on giving students the benefit of the doubt for a simple reason: money. Administrators want to “retain” students who come trailing financial aid dollars.

To that end, they tried to attract students with marketing campaigns, with billboards showing students leaping around, having fun. They added “community service” to the academic requirements, to replace traditional, academically challenging subjects. Signs asked students to fill out “customer satisfaction surveys” and place them in bright yellow boxes around campus.  We were told to improve our “customer service.”

But most of the so-called “customers” were not paying customers. They had no incentive to take full advantage of the educational services we were offering. College to them was an extension of high school, a place to put in their time and pick up a degree that they believed would land them a fulfilling, well-paying job.

That the problems I had were widespread is revealed by the agendas for our faculty development days. I kept two, from 2009 and 2010.

At the part-time faculty symposium on Saturday, August 8, 2009, the first of two keynote speeches was entitled “’Responsibility’—Original and creative ways to change thinking and behavior of students so that they will be more responsible.”

I don’t remember what the “creative ways” were, but none was the obvious one: make the students pay for at least part of their costs. The most responsible students I had were the ones who were invested in their educations, who were paying part of the costs from their jobs. We all knew the slackers getting free rides.

The other keynote speech was entitled “’Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy?’ Motivating and Engaging the Millennial Learner.”

To introduce the latter topic, a film showed young people with exaggerated expressions of boredom as a professor droned on. This not so subtly displayed to us the idea that any bored students were our fault. We were told we needed to understand millennials, who had short attention spans, a distrust of authority, and fragile egos.

We needed to justify everything we asked of them. We had to make learning fun!

The symposium the next year continued the message by offering these workshops:

  • “Just what are your students doing while using the computer!?! Managing your students [sic] computer use with SynchronEyes.” This program could “help you lock down a computer to keep students from surfing the Internet, take control of a computer, black out a screen to force students to focus their attention on you, and much more!”
  • “’TWITTER!’ Using Twitter to Engage Students.”
  • “Classroom Management: How to Deal with Disruptive Students.  Notice that in your classroom today cell phones are ringing, students are texting, strolling in late and snacking in the back of the room? Feel a little distracted by the constant disruption? Learn some tips on how to manage these increasingly common issues.” (This was taught by a professor who was also director of the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning.)
  • “Turnitin: Learn the basics of Turnitin, a plagiarism detection web site used to detect cheating/plagiarism by students from (but not limited to): websites, textbooks, publications, journals, and between students.”

The topics of such workshops reveal how low our higher education system, especially at the community college level, has sunk.

Obama’s America’s College Promise further lowers the financial and academic demands of students. The cost to the federal government is estimated to be $60 billion over ten years. Why should taxpayers be responsible for this plan that only promises to exacerbate the problems caused by “free” community college for some students?