Over at Slate, Chris Beam has a great piece about the Obama administration's proposal to allocate nearly $12 billion to community colleges over the next 10 years; approximately $9 billion will go to funding academic programs and the rest is earmarked for upgrading facilities. The crux of Beam’s argument is that community colleges are more lithe, flexible operations, able to adapt to changing economic trends:

It used to be that you could educate the top 10 percent…and the rest of the population would get unskilled jobs. But in a global economy, where even professions like cashier or truck driver require constant upgrades in technology and information, a high-school diploma is not always enough. That said, a pricey Ivy League degree may not be necessary, either. Community colleges fill that hole.

While Obama's focus on community colleges is a welcome and necessary change, the administration has, thus far, not attempted to address the larger structural problems facing higher education. Over the past few decades, tuition at colleges across the country has skyrocketed, administrative positions and salaries have ballooned, and tuition revenue that should be used for instruction is being used to fund venture partnerships with corporations. Meanwhile, spending on instruction has remained stagnant as both community colleges and four-year universities have turned to poorly paid adjuncts as cheap labor.

Obama’s plan for community colleges is not broad enough in scope to address all these concerns, but it can still be designed so it does not perpetuate the problem. Washington, D.C.-based higher education expert Ben Miller suggests limiting what portion of the federal grants to community colleges can go to administrative costs; the fact that the money is dispersed through program-specific grants as opposed to blanket, TARP-like disbursements, he also points out, will prevent the sort of waste and lack of transparency we have seen with the economic stimulus. But this initiative is a drop in the bucket: a lot more needs to be done to stop the corporatizing trend that has steadily transformed our colleges and universities.

One piece of the solution lies in adjunct and faculty unionization. Non-unionized adjuncts do most of the instructional work in higher education, yet they generally have little job security, rarely receive health and retirement benefits, and are paid about a quarter as much per course as tenured faculty. Many dart from campus to campus to try to earn a living. But those at schools with an adjunct union fare much better: adjuncts at NYU, who unionized in 2004, have been able to negotiate some of the highest salaries for adjuncts and contracts that guarantee continued teaching assignments.

Another piece is increased investment in education by state and the federal governments. Unaffordable tuition at many public colleges and universities has come about in part because of per capita declines in state support. Overall spending on education has increased, but it has not kept up with the rising number of students attending college. Again, our system of higher education needs to anticipate educating more than just the “top 10 percent.” State public schools should be better-funded. To prevent increased government support from being lost to the academic bureaucracy, receipt of state and federal funds for higher education should be conditioned on tuition freezes.

As Beam points out, $12 billion is well under half of Harvard’s endowment. Spread over 10 years, it’s a paltry figure. The task of transforming the workforce is going to take much bolder, more radical action.

--Gabriel Arana

Gabriel Arana is TAP’s new editorial assistant. Welcome, Gabe!