In his State of the State address, Gov. Haslam introduced his plan to make community college free to graduating high school students. He even suggested how we'd pay for it. Sadly, the governor is ignoring a much greater need.
Consider first that the best way for success in college is preparation in K-12. It is there where the need is greatest. It is there where he should place his emphasis, and the state's monies.
While this may seem like a cheap shot, I assure you it isn't. It is a call for practicality over political showmanship. Community colleges across the nation are the dumping grounds for students needing remediation before tackling the rigors of a college education. That's not just a Tennessee problem. Across the nation, fully 60 percent of students entering colleges of any sort (two-year/four-year/technical, it doesn't matter) are functionally unprepared for learning at that level.
A report by highereducation.org offered the following insights:
"While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness."
In a nutshell, community colleges, indeed all colleges, have to provide remediation courses to educate students in things they should have mastered throughout their K-12 years. So, offering students a pathway to a free education on the state's dime will have the same result as sending them to school on their own money. The drop-out rate will be the same, performance will not improve, and our workforce will not be enhanced.
I'm not suggesting that community college should not be free. To the contrary, education should be free for all four years. But the quality of students entering these august bodies has to be at the level necessary to insure the success we all want: higher performance students completing college on time.
If the governor is serious about improving the education system in the state, he'll necessarily have to focus on pre-K. He'll necessarily have to invest in eliminating poverty, the proven cause of poor performance at all levels. Children entering school ill-prepared to learn for lack of basics will soon enough be the students failing in reading and math, the students who act out in class and disrupt learning for everyone else.
Investing early guarantees that we won't be paying a lot more later through social system interventions.
This is not an either/or situation. Rather, it's an "and" opportunity: the opportunity to prepare children early, when results are better and longer lasting; and, the opportunity to provide free educations for young people who are prepared for its rigors. Making free educations effective means starting at the beginning. Doing so guarantees a better end.