I went to a public high school in upstate NY, and a big chunk of my graduating class ended up in the local community college (coincidentally, where my mom was a librarian). Such a big chunk, in fact, that the college was jokingly referred to as “Troy High, 13th grade.” That being said, it was a school that combined the unfortunate need for remediation (of bad attitudes as well as insufficient skills) with some areas of genuine excellence. Math and physics were particularly strong, and often fed students into Rensselaer, a major engineering university. It was a great way for good but cash-strapped students to get two years of college on the cheap, and for “non-traditional” students to make a transition into better careers. More or less, it’s a place that knows its mission.
The common criticism of Massachusetts’ community colleges is that they don’t seem to know what they’re supposed to be doing. Roxbury Community College, for instance, graduates only 5% of its incoming students. Slice it however you want, but that can’t possibly be good. I don’t even think that it’s the colleges’ fault — there’s something wrong with the students going in if they can’t hack the work, or if they’re distracted or unmotivated to finish. Again, it’s the old public school problem of having the student feel that the goal of education is relevant and meaningful.
So I don’t know … I’m not sure that making community colleges free changes the equation that much — how is this not just 13th and 14th grades? What are we supposed to get out of it, exactly? More voc-ed? Feeding students into the state universities — or private colleges, for that matter? Remediation for ineffective primary schooling?
We should be clear on what we want, before we just ask for more of it for free.