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Are Community Colleges Meant Mainly to Crank Out Workers for Business?

AFT pair: “All of us know what the replacement of funding based on enrollment with funding based on completion would mean—cuts and scarcity and a ‘streamlining’ of the community college system that would limit access and eliminate programs and classes.”

Editor’s note: The following letter—titled Who’s Behind the “Completion” Agenda?—was sent Tuesday to teachers in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and San Diego Community College District by their union, the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. It is being reprinted here with permission of Jim Mahler, president of AFT Guild local 1931.

To the editor:

In past communications, your AFT has warned against the creeping academic Taylorism that comes with the movement toward student learning outcomes and pointed to the long history of American corporate interests seeking to discipline and, in turn, profit from institutions of higher learning—whether it be plutocrats railing against the dangerous ideas in the academy or business leaders seeking to transform American colleges into narrow job training factories that provide them with skilled workers without the accompanying bother of having to foot the bill for this service in the form of paying their fair share of taxes.

With the release of the California Community College Board of Governors task force on Student Success report, we see yet another push by some “system representatives” and their “external partners” to push for a dumbed-down, totally instrumental view of our mission that focuses nearly exclusively on making community colleges more efficient machines cranking out workers for business. 

The latest stalking horse is completion, with all the requisite hand-wringing and intellectually disingenuous bracketing off of the larger socio-economic forces that make it harder for our students to complete their degrees. 

It’s all about the students’ success, they remind us, as if we had somehow forgotten them on the way to collecting our fat paychecks and gold-plated pensions.

In sum, the report recommends a comprehensive revamp of community colleges, noting that, “Taken together, these recommendations would reboot the California Community College system toward the success of its students.”  

The “reboot” metaphor says it all about the ideology behind the report: It’s mechanistic with a open bias toward a technocratic business model that favors reductionist measurement systems over the failed human judgment based system of old. 

It’s time to stop allowing students to “wander” through the curriculum and track them more efficiently. If only we do a better job of tracking and push our lax, waste-filled system with more accountability measures, all will improve despite a historic budget crisis the largest gap between the rich and the poor in modern history, and the legacy of systemic racism.  

The end game of all this is, of course, funding based on these mechanistic “outcomes,” but the report doesn’t take us there quite yet.  As the authors note, they were “split” on whether this was the solution at present:

After considerable review, the Task Force was deeply divided on the topic of outcome-based funding. A vocal minority supported implementing some version of outcome-based funding, while the majority of Task Force members did not support such a proposal at this time due to various concerns, some of which are noted above. For many Task Force members, the lack of evidence demonstrating that outcome-based funding made a positive impact on student success was an important factor in their decision to reject implementing outcome-based funding at this time.

While some states have identified positive impacts, others have not and have terminated implementation of their outcomes-based funding models. The Task Force suggested that the Chancellor’s Office continue to monitor implementation of outcomes-based funding in other states and model how various formulas might work in California.

Of course, all of us know what the replacement of funding based on enrollment with funding based on completion would mean—cuts and scarcity and a “streamlining” of the community college system that would limit access and eliminate many programs and classes that don’t accommodate the Academic Taylorist party line.

Not surprisingly, in addition to the “system representatives,” the report received help from the Lumina Foundation and other corporate funded “external partners.” 

And these sorts of “external partners” are far from being neutral players with a high-minded interest in the public good.  They are, in fact, part of a larger network of interests interested in privatization, union-busting, pension reform, and more. 

As Eric Kelderman noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Lumina Foundation for Education has become one of the best-known higher-education philanthropies in the country, spending nearly $50-million annually on projects to improve college completion ... the foundation is shifting its focus away from giving money to new projects to develop policy ideas. Instead, Lumina will work to enact the changes needed to drastically improve college graduation rates ...

Still, Lumina's change in focus doesn't mean that the organization will be spending less money, he said. In fact, the foundation will expand its efforts by convening business leaders, lawmakers, higher-education groups, and faculty members to build consensus on specific policy measures . . .

In addition, he said, Lumina will draft model policies for states, including legislation. The group is already working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative-leaning organization, to write and introduce bills in statehouses.

But Kelderman’s characterization of ALEC as “conservative leaning” soft-pedals the significance of this group to the point of completely missing the significance of the connection between Lumina and ALEC. 

Fortunately, John Nichols, in The Nation, has a much keener eye.  In a recent piece on ALEC, Nichols outlines their origins and history:

Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists frustrated by recent electoral setbacks, ALEC is a critical arm of the right-wing network of policy shops that, with infusions of corporate cash, has evolved to shape American politics.

Inspired by Milton Friedman’s call for conservatives to “develop alternatives to existing policies [and] keep them alive and available,” ALEC’s model legislation reflects long-term goals: downsizing government, removing regulations on corporations and making it harder to hold the economically and politically powerful to account.

Corporate donors retain veto power over the language, which is developed by the secretive task forces. The task forces cover issues from education to health policy. ALEC’s priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter ID laws and more.

In states across the country they succeeded, with stacks of new laws signed by GOP governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, both ALEC alums.

So when Lumina joins forces with ALEC it means more than just a move toward influencing legislative policy; it means they are part of a larger network of monied interests pushing our country further toward plutocracy and corporate domination. 

That is why there is nothing about creating educated citizens for our democracy in the BOG report, because that is simply not part of their agenda. Corporate interests collaborating to impose the business model in public higher education want efficient workers trained to follow top-down orders,not critical thinkers who might question their agenda or buck up against the slow creep toward “outcomes based funding” that would serve as a Trojan horse for privatization.

It is in keeping with this agenda that the Draft Recommendations of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force would, “Encourage students to declare a program of study upon admission and require declaration by the end [of] their second term” (Recommendation 2.5). 

To those who seek to cut waste out of government expenditures on public education by eliminating the temptation students have to explore intellectual horizons and to learn about diverse vocational fields, this requirement compelling community college students to compartmentalize themselves in narrowly defined majors, soon after admission to college, seems entirely justifiable, notwithstanding that students in four-year universities have until the junior year to declare majors. 

In the effort to discourage frivolous intellectual experimentation, the report asserts, “Declaring a program of study is much more specific than declaring an educational goal.  Doing so sets incoming students on an educational pathway and builds momentum for their success.” 

To that end, “A student who is unable to declare a program of study by the end of their second term should be provided counseling and other interventions to assist them in education planning and exploring career and program options.”  And, for the rebels, “If these interventions fail to meet their desired end, students should lose enrollment priority after their third term.” 

How to deal with students whose curiosity might get the better of them, even after committing, on cue, to a program of study?  Recommendation 3.1, on enrollment priorities, reveals one hammer:  “Continuing students should lose enrollment priority if they do not follow their original or a revised education plan.” 

Woe to the career tech student who might venture to take a course in geography, philosophy, or fine arts!  What is the utility of radiation technology or mathematics students enrolling in political science to learn about legislative processes or the impact of free-trade agreements on the national economy and labor force demand? 

Recommendation 4.1 certainly would eliminate that option for working-class students stretching to meet the costs of community colleges:  “Under this recommendation, students having the course in their education plan would pay the credit enrollment fee, while students not having the course in their education plan would pay a fee covering the full cost of instruction” or market value. 

No allowance for the pursuit of interdisciplinary knowledge in this model!  Straight and narrow utilitarianism only!  The prospects for reducing public education expenses in running course sections in dangerous majors, such as history and sociology, or literature seem almost endless.

While recent discussions of the “Buffet rule” have focused people’s attention on the fact that the rich have gotten richer while the rest of us have suffered, they have also exposed the truth that, as opposed to the decades-old mantra of the anti-tax zealots, the affluent pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than the rest of us.  

The rich have gained, the poor are poorer, and the middle class is shrinking.  You don’t have to have a Nobel Prize in economics to know that this is not fair. 
What this phenomenon has done is push us further towards plutocracy or the rule of the dollar. 

As to whether all this amounts to a conspiracy, we urge you to consider the extensive activities of American Legislative Exchange Council.  As the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALEC Exposed website explains:

ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line.

Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. (ALEC says that corporations do not vote on the board.) 

Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills.

ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization. We agree. It is as if a state legislature had been reconstituted, yet corporations had pushed the people out the door.

More specifically ALEC (which is 98 percent corporate funded) pushes a corporate agenda at the international, national, state, and local levels with regard to union busting, workers’ rights, the privatization of education, healthcare, the environment, energy, agriculture, voting, taxes, prisons, immigration, and much more. 

It is not a conspiracy of the imaginary “nefarious elite”; it is how the very real economic elites have highjacked our government at every level (including education).  It’s how the Koch brothers’ money talks and democracy walks.  To put it another way, this is what plutocracy looks like.

To review ALEC’s activities on a state by state level, see where their money comes from and which politicians are part of the organization, see: www.alecexposed.org

In particular, go to the privatizing education page and scroll down to the find the “treating universities like manufacturers” link. 

Jim Miller and Jonathan McLeod

Miller teaches at San Diego City College and Jonathan McLeod at San Diego Mesa College. A debate on this issue was published Nov. 20 in The San Diego Union-Tribune under the heading Stressing Success.

Kyla December 01, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Three comments: One, "...cranking out workers for business"?! The horror! As I believe we are seeing now, the message that a person must go to college in order to be remotely successful in life is resulting in stressed-out kids who believe that any laborious job is beneath them. In order for a country to function, there must be people working in manufacturing, agriculture, janitorial services, food service, etc. We NEED workers for business. In fact, what alternative is there? Workers for...? In order to make a living, a person generally must be involved in business in some way. Two, I don't see the foundation of the argument against requiring degree declaration within the first year of school. The statement including "students in four-year universities have until the junior year to declare majors" is ridiculous. A community college is meant to be a two-year school. Allowing students to wait until their last semester to choose a degree path is just plain stupid and a terrible way to run a school. How inefficient! Third, if a student is one of those that is happier taking classes from different realms of academia, they really shouldn't be in college. College is where you should go when you have figured out in which one "narrowly defined major" you would like to become proficient or an expert. It's not the place to "find yourself", while taking up space in classes that could be used by the people that made a choice and actually require them.
Suzann Fulbright May 10, 2014 at 02:03 AM
I suppose it never occurred to you that some things worth doing are not that marketable. Classical music, for example, hardly hits the Billboard charts. So, therefore it is not worth doing? Tell that to the millions of people in this country who turn up to FREE concerts every summer. Do you intend to wipe out every art and humanities and sociology and cultural anthropology and creative writing and theatre and music department out of the books because some esoteric piece of music from Louis XIV"court used as an exercise isn't going to rake in dollars for the big corporate entertainment industry in LA?
Carole December 17, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Yes, we need workers, and some students will prefer a hands-on job to a "suit job." CCs are a great place to offer both options. Let's not forget that most "basic skills" students are actually low-income and of color, and have poor skill development not because of any cognitive disabilities but because of their unfunded schooling. Still, steering students into career-tech jobs effectively blocks them from getting bachelor's degrees and beyond. The result is that diverse voices are kept out of the higher levels of business, law, science and other fields.
Suzann Fulbright May 10, 2014 at 02:18 AM
We need workers? 3% of the population controls 85% of the wealth in this country, it would appear to me that we have an overabundance of workers and too few entrepreneurs.
Callum December 19, 2011 at 09:53 PM
First, the Lumina Foundation is not some nefarious corporate schemer. Yes, a lot of their work is focused on increasing the efficiency and productivity of higher education (and using successful business models to do that), but the reality is that the current ever-inflating costs of higher education aren't sustainable. So asking "how can we reduce the amount of resources it takes to provide a quality credential?" is not unreasonable. Further, Lumina does extensive work and research into access and success for minority and low-income students (things conservative education-killers aren't interested in). Second, urging students to figure out what they want to do with their degree isn't the same as creating obedient drones. If a student wants to pursue English, philosophy, or science, there's nothing in the taskforce's recommendation to prevent that. And figuring things out in the 2nd of 4 terms isn't unreasonable, anything later and they won't have time to complete successfully. Finally, a public school (whether 4-year or 2-year) needs to serve a public purpose. It's not all about the individual's personal exploration. It is about creating informed citizens who are prepared to contribute to the economy. Those public benefits are why we, as taxpayers, fully fund K-12 (supposedly) and why we partially fund higher education.

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