Friday, April 24, 2015

Does Cheap Community College Create Negative Incentives for High School Students?

With President Obama proposing free community college, perhaps it seems strange to wonder if California's two-year schools are too inexpensive.  California has the lowest CC tuition in the nation by far, and the biggest differential in tuition between 4-year and 2-year schools.  The state provides a strong financial incentive for its high school grads to attend 2-year schools, and they respond in large numbers.

A recent presentation and op-ed by Hans Johnson of PPIC, and my own daughters' graduation from high school has got me thinking about this issue. Johnson's op-ed makes the following observations,
Among the 20 most-populated states, California ranks 19th in the share of recent high school graduates that go to a four-year college — public or private, anywhere in the United States. In 2012, only a third of California high school graduates enrolled in a four-year college within a year of graduating from high school, compared with about half of high school graduates in Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin and New York. Among the 50 states, California ranked 47th. 
In contrast, California ranks first out of the 20 most-populated states in the share of recent high school graduates who go to a two-year college (and ranks fifth among all 50 states). State funding reflects this focus, with California’s community colleges commanding an increasing and now majority share of state allocations — 54 percent — to the three public systems (UC, CSU and the community colleges). 
Clearly, community colleges play a very large role in California’s higher education system. The problem? Low completion rates. Substantially less than half of students who enter community colleges with the intent of transferring to a four-year college successfully do so. Research has shown that students are much more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they first enroll in a four-year college rather than a community college.
California looks more like the President's proposal than any other state. However, numerous reports show the educational achievement of California's residents - especially young adults under 35 - is falling relative to the rest of the nation and world, threatening the state's future competitiveness.  From California's experience, it isn't clear to me that making college degrees more affordable with financial incentives to start at a community college will lead to better educational outcomes.

Certainly, affordability is a barrier to higher educational achievement, and that is deservedly getting a lot of attention these days.  However, the evidence shows that poor high school preparation is also a strong barrier to college completion.  And as Johnson notes, students who begin in community college are less likely to finish even though their choice makes a bachelors degree more affordable.  I expect that it increases other issues with transfer credits, social and academic transitions, and academic preparation.

The other issue I have noticed this year in my kids' high school that I have not seen anywhere in this discussion is how the incentive to start in community college negatively effects what students do in high school.  I have seen capable high-school students avoid challenging courses and make lackluster efforts in academics, and they admit the reason is that it doesn't matter for admission to the local community college.  Students with ability and financial resources are discouraged from starting at 4-year schools, because you can "get the same thing" for much less cost - both in money and in work.  No need to worry about taking another math class, an AP course, the SAT, or study for the test tomorrow.  Not only does it reduce their learning in high school and preparation for college, it instills bad habits that persist in the future.

Admittedly, these are just some anecdotal observations on a small non-random sample of high-school students inspired by the differing educational climate I have observed in California compared to other states I have lived.  It's a hypothesis, and I have no idea if there is any serious research that shows that a financial incentive to attend community college can have negative effects on high school academic choices and achievements.  And if there is a negative effect, there may be better ways to correct the incentive than increasing community college tuition.

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