The Honorable Governor Andrew Cuomo’s observations about community college in New York State should not come as a surprise given his own background. While his father may have understood what it was to grow up in a difficult financial situation, Governor Andrew Cuomo was born after his father had an established law practice. He attended only private schools from his primary school up through the obtaining of his JD from Albany Law School in 1982. This is not to disparage Governor Cuomo’s background, nor to cast aspersions on him for coming from a family that benefited from the opportunities afforded to them over two generations to rise up financially from the status of freshly arrived Italian immigrants to major players in the state government and provide for him in a way they had not been able to experience themselves. It does, however, explain the skewed viewpoint he may have of what a community college does, and what it is meant to do.
Community colleges have a long tradition of serving the underprivileged—those people who did not have the money for expensive institutions; those people who perhaps did not have the grades on the secondary school level to get them the scholarships that would have made more expensive institutions possible; those students who, for whatever life reasons they had, needed to have an affordable, local option for their degrees.
What is most troubling about the Honorable Governor’s statement is the assumptions it makes about what the lower economic classes are deserving of and the pre-supposed purpose of what a community college is meant to do. Governor Cuomo states, “Our community college system in many cases is charging students exorbitant tuition, running up debt and giving them training and education for jobs that don’t exist. The person graduates the community college system, has the debt but can’t find a job.” Governor Cuomo seems to be under the impression that community colleges are meant to serve as vocational schools—we are meant, somehow, to simply train workers for jobs in local industry and send them off to work. This is an antiquated model of what a community college is meant to accomplish. In the region the community college I work at serves, we have seen quite clearly in the last few decades what happens to a local economy when the workforce is too specialized for specific industries. When those industries are no longer there, the workers are unemployed, and they are not qualified to go into any other line of work. The professors at my college for over a decade have seen the immense number of students who passed through here when the paper companies pulled up their roots and moved shop to other parts. The county north of us could explicitly explain to Governor Cuomo what happens when people trained for a life in auto plants and aluminum companies suddenly find that they are faced with either moving to another state or country to follow their jobs or trying to relearn a new occupation at mid-life. The governor’s assertion that, “the community college system, where successful, is turning into a training program, or almost an apprentice program for a specific industry. That part of the training they designed what they need, the skills they need. You go to that community college, get that degree, you come out, you graduate, you go right into that company and that’s what we have to be doing with our community colleges,” would only exacerbate that problem.
It also serves as an extension of an increasing problem in the governmental attitude toward the purpose of education in general. After decades of pedagogical debates about student-centered and teacher-centered models of education, the government, over the past ten years at least, has been working to impose a corporate-centered approach to education. The hard earned knowledge and skills of teachers are being devalued in favor of ROI mindsets and business model thinking. The recent developments with Common Core on the secondary level are yet one more example of what happens when educational decisions are made by people with no background in education. A corporate designed curriculum focused on instilling “work skills” in high school students is turning them out even less prepared for college than the previous systems (which have also had their problems), and the fault gets laid at the feet of college instructors whose first contact with students is after they have demonstrated on a placement exam that they cannot write a sentence or perform simple mathematics. We hear, “Well, they passed the Regents Exam,” but the fact that passing scores were curved up by twenty points is discounted from the equation, as is the fact that often the Regents curriculum is not teaching anything in the way of college preparatory skills.
Furthermore, Cuomo’s assertion that, “Our community college system in many cases is charging students exorbitant tuition, [and] running up debt,” comes out of some state of bizarre unreality. Tuition at state community colleges is a fraction of what it cost to attend even a state four-year school, and exponentially smaller than the cost of a private university. In fact, a student who came to the college I teach at, who qualified for zero federal or state financial aid, had zero dollars in scholarships and paid entirely through student loans for the entire four semesters to attain an associate’s degree would have $10,768 in debt (and that is factoring in an exorbitant and unlikely cost of $700 per semester for textbooks). If this student is planning to transfer to a four-year school, that means the first two years of college debt is less than what it would likely cost for the car loan she took out to get back and forth to classes. Factor in that at least 80% of or students receive some form of federal or state grant aid and fewer than 40% of our students take out a single student loan in their entire time at our college, and it’s difficult to understand under what grounds Governor Cuomo feels he can make that statement at all. A simple review of the tuition rates at the state community colleges should have been enough to edit that remark out of his speech. It does, of course, play well for an uninformed audience who wants to think charitably of “all those poor children” saddled with that immense burden of debt. (And, of course, it also conveniently ignores that fact that the reason the current tuition for community colleges is at the rate it is results from the states own refusal, for a number of consecutive years now, to fulfill its legal obligation to fund 33.3% of the funding costs for each community college, at several points dropping to rates lower than 25% of minimal budgetary needs. The governor’s own budget plan for this year has no provisions within it to rectify this situation, so in essence we have the head of state complaining about the tuition at state sponsored schools that the state refuses to provide their contractually agreed upon funding to, and then wondering why the rates are “so high,” even though they are, in fact, far lower than what any comparable institution charges.)
Most disturbing is the cynical viewpoint of what the under privileged are deserving of in a community college education. It is still a fairly accepted truth that education is the key to upward mobility, but Governor Cuomo’s framing of what he considers “reforming” the community college system has nothing to do with actual education. It’s related to job training. “Almost an apprentice program for a specific industry,” is how he qualifies his vision for what community colleges should offer, but what does this mean for those students—a large percentage of attendees—who are using the community college system as an affordable alternative to their first two years of a four-year degree? Are these students, by position of their economic standing, not deserving of the opportunity to begin the pursuit of a four-year education via an affordable medium? Are we meant to believe that students who cannot afford to go directly into a Bachelor’s program are undeserving of that pursuit? Does Governor Cuomo honestly believe that the under privileged are only interested in entering into whatever local industry might be available to them, or is it his belief that that is simply all they are deserving of?
Perhaps Governor Cuomo should not be faulted for his opinion, since his sheltered existence in an all-private educational system may have led him to believe that only the financially able are interested in the pursuits of non-vocational higher education. But I’m a perfect example of the type of person that a community college is meant to serve. I grew up in a farming family where we frequently had nothing in the way of savings, and often juggled bills in that careful balance of never being paid up but managing to (barely) stay out of collections—the power didn’t get shut off, but sometimes that was only because of the state laws that prohibited Niagara Mohawk from shutting off the electricity during winter temperatures. I was fortunate in that my grades afforded me the opportunity to attend a four-year school directly because of the scholarships that I earned, but if that advantage had not been available, the best track for me in terms of achieving my personal goals from higher education would have been to go to a community college, where I could lay down the foundation for the four year degree I wanted. If that channel had not been available to me, I would not be where I am today—teaching at a community college with a Master’s degree and close to completing my Doctorate.
Governor Cuomo’s vision of the community college is not of an institution built around serving the needs of its students. His vision divorces the community college completely from the realm of higher education, and turns it into a training ground to feed the needs of local industry. While this may be beneficial to local businesses, how does it ultimately serve the attendees of a community college if the only opportunity you will afford them is the opportunity to pursue a career they may not want, which will keep them living locally (which they may not wish to do), and is likely to afford them no opportunity for upward mobility? In an effort to make community colleges into service providers and feeders for local industries, Governor Cuomo wants to strip them of any educational relevance. He also is seeking to strip the under privileged of any right to determine their own career and educational futures. The people who attend community colleges attend to have better lives. They attend to find better jobs. They attend to achieve the goals and dreams they set out for themselves. They do not attend with the sole goal of working in whatever local industry feeds the local economy, remaining static in their economic class, and staying rooted in the area they have grown up in.
And this doesn’t even begin to take into account the thousands of adult learners who attend community colleges to improve their chances for career advancement or retrain after job displacement.
New York is not great because of its business. That is only one small part of what makes us a thriving state. We are great because of our arts, our educational system (which the Governor seems set on eroding), and the diversity of opportunity available to all citizens of this state. Governor Cuomo’s plan is one that seeks to put an end to much of what makes us a great state, and makes the United States a great nation. We aren’t a world power because of our ability to glue rubber soles onto the bottoms of discount running shoes. We are a world power because of our technological innovations, our rich culture and ability to disseminate it throughout the world, and a compulsory educational system that political intrusion by well-meaning but misguided officials like Governor Cuomo and many of his counterparts is slowly destroying.
If we are going to reduce the community college system to one where we, “link them regionally with the employers in that region, identify specific jobs that are available and then educate and train for those jobs,” where are our future teachers going to come from? Where will we find our future doctors? Where are the future artists, writers, actors? Governor Cuomo, it seems, wants community colleges to be places where we—in our own region, which has very little industry at all at this point due to the economic downslide—train people to work in dairy plants, on farms, and greet customers at Wal-Mart. This is not what higher education exists for, and it is not why we have a community college system. The goal of education is not to serve corporations. It is no to create workers specialized in specific fields who will be unemployable when the local factory shuts down. It is not meant to make the decisions for people as to what they are permitted to pursue in the way of higher education. His proposal, in his own words, demonstrably seeks to not only strip community colleges of a realistic claim to being part of the higher educational system—something that is a key component of the recent proposal by President Obama to make two years of community college free to all eligible citizens—but to also strip New York citizens of their choice in pursuing higher goals, degrees, and careers.
The fact that any politician would see fit to voice this type of opinion within ear shot of the public is disturbing enough. The idea that he would deliver it in the midst of the State of the State Address in front of the Legislature, and no one has called for his immediate resignation is a travesty.