CHRIS POWELL: Devaluing public education has become the state's policy

Published on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 21:54

From Connecticut and Washington last week came more strong signs that higher education isn't worth the expense to many students.

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system announced that it had just awarded another $3.6 million to 2,400 community college students to help them cover the cost of attendance, which was defined broadly to include food, housing, and child care. Another $21 million already has been awarded to students deemed in trouble financially. Emergency federal financial aid is paying for it.

And President Biden extended until May his freeze on repayment of federal college student loans.

Biden and the president of the state college system, Terrence Cheng, attributed the actions to hardship caused by the virus epidemic. But this was misleading.

For college loan debt has been a serious problem for a long time, as many college graduates can't find jobs paying enough to support themselves in normal life and to repay their debt.

Similarly, even before the epidemic the state college system was suffering an alarming decline in enrollment, perhaps because parents and students were realizing that even the inexpensive education offered by the community colleges and regional universities was not always good value.

Now there is a severe labor shortage in Connecticut and throughout the country as millions of people seem to have given up on working -- or at least given up on working officially and incurring tax liability. Jobs are going begging. Many require skills that can be gained short of a college degree or learned on the job.

This doesn't mean that higher education is useless but that it is overpriced and that college loans and grants like those awarded in Connecticut last week are less subsidies to students than to higher education's own employees.

The steady rise in the cost of higher education has correlated strongly with the rising compensation of college personnel and the growth of administrative staff.

Connecticut's public college administrators are spectacularly paid, and last week, even as CSCU President Cheng lamented what he saw as the financial strain on community college students, he declined to suggest economizing with his annual salary of $360,000.

But then all public education, not just public higher education, long has been going soft, corrupted by prosperity and forgetting that prosperity is not the natural order of things but something that must be constantly earned.

Connecticut is a telling example of this, its elementary education having long eliminated standards for promotion from grade to grade and having adopted social promotion instead.

The system knows very well what it has been doing. It has minimized annual testing of students from kindergarten through high school and fails to provide any measure of student performance upon graduation. Instead the final measures of performance are the Scholastic Aptitude Tests given to all students in high school's junior year.

The rationale offered for this is efficiency and to encourage all students to consider college. But the SATs provide no measures of academic proficiency at graduation. The last time Connecticut high school seniors were tested for proficiency was in 2013 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Connecticut's seniors performed best in the country, half still had not mastered high school English and two-thirds still had not mastered high school math. Recent junior-year SAT scores suggest the same.

Despite this lack of student qualifications, Connecticut strives to send everyone on to college. Until a few years ago most community college and state university freshmen were having to take remedial high school courses, but the embarrassment of it caused the courses to be replaced by counseling.

Thus public education has devalued itself on the way to mere credentialism, providing incentives to fail, not succeed. If it aimed more for education than the contentment of employees, parents, and students, it would guarantee college admission only to students who master high school work. But the system doesn't want any data like that.

So having given up on ordinary education, Connecticut's public schools are busying themselves with racial propaganda and "social and emotional learning," for which there will never be any inconvenient measures of performance.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 21:54. Updated: Wednesday, 29 December 2021 21:56.