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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

January 16, 2015 at 6:05 AM

Free community college would stratify educational attainment

I fear Danny Westneat’s enthusiasm for President Obama’s free college proposal [“Ahead of the curve on the free college idea,” Local News, Jan. 9] is a bit misplaced. As he admits, it certainly sounds too good to be true.

While the calculations of Sara Goldrick-Rab and others are technically accurate, they exclude considerations of educational quality and mask larger equity issues. As Westneat notes, aggregate federal funding for higher education is enough to fund community college for every American student. However, rearranging grant and scholarship distribution in such a way would mean removing opportunities for low-income students to attend private institutions or higher-quality public institutions.

As many educators have warned, attempts to provide low-cost or free higher education (for example, by expanding community-college enrollment or shifting toward online programs) in effect further stratifies educational attainment. Obama’s proposal runs the risk of creating a two-tiered higher education system — one for the very wealthy, and one for everyone else. It may indeed eliminate “the gap between poor and richer kids in college-attendance rates,” but as any educator or parent knows, school attendance is only one part of the story.

I agree with Westneat that the unanimous enthusiasm on the part of our state’s Legislature is encouraging, at least insofar as it reflects universal willingness to rethink educational equity solutions. However, I worry that explicit partisan invectives (as in the case of Goldrick-Rab’s recent tweets) and unexamined talking points may quickly turn the discussion into a divisive (and fruitless) political issue. Low-income families would remain stranded if rhetorical point-scoring takes precedence over thoughtful discussion.

Brett Bertucio, Madison, Wis.

Comments | More in Education | Topics: Brett Bertucio, community college, Danny Westneat

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