college

Free Community College Will Only Make Things Worse

4 ½ min

Like nearly all Americans, President Joe Biden believes that a college degree is the ticket to both individual economic advancement and uplifting the poor. To put his money where his mouth is, he has proposed $256 billion in government funding to cover two years of public community college plus cash for living expenses. In an instant, an improved workforce and less economic inequality. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as critics note. But left unsaid in this opposition is an awkward reality: free classroom instruction will not elevate a deficient workforce. Ask any business owner or manager about hiring decent help—I myself owned and operated a small retail business for 14 years—and they all complain about finding workers with adequate “soft skills,” not sufficient book learning. Yes, there are some technical skills only available via classroom instruction, but for most of the workforce, particularly at the lower rungs, on-the-job-training usually suffices.

Enumerations of these “soft skills” often vary, but all employers have a pretty good idea of what they entail. Intelligence is vital. While employees need not be rocket scientists, they must be able to pick things up quickly and figure out new situations. Stupidity cannot be fixed by mentoring, training, pay boosts, or any other intervention. Hiring a dummy is worse than hiring nobody. The same can be said for honesty. Yes, a business might tolerate some employee theft or a little lying, but there are limits. Of further import are such personal virtues as dependability, punctuality, taking initiative, and dutifulness. What do you do with a new hire too lazy to learn required skills? Can anyone successfully run a business where employees regularly skip work, arrive late, depart early, drink on the job, mismanage their time, and spend hours gossiping on cellphones?

Managers and business-owners are also aware of how employees can undermine the cohesion necessary for a healthy bottom line. Try holding meetings with thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive workers who chronically complain about discrimination or unfair treatment, especially if these workers routinely avail themselves of government intervention to reverse this alleged harm. Or try dealing with employees whose thorny personalities and egos disrupt teamwork. In my business I recall commission-obsessed salespeople who angered co-workers by hogging customers while neglecting non-commission, but essential tasks such as straightening up inventory. Sports teams know full well about the hazards of talented players whose selfish behavior hinders team success. Better to trade such disruptors to some other team.

There are, no doubt, other vital soft skills, but they all share one thing in common: none will be taught in a community college. There are no classes in good manners or dressing appropriately, let alone speaking clearly. In fact, the opposite may be true if the school tolerates indolence to keep government tuition money flowing. It is all too tempting to overlook erratic attendance or cheating if Washington’s checks just depend on the body count. Under such conditions, students learn the very opposite of what makes for a desirable employee and so all this “free” money actually subverts Biden’s supposed goals.

Underlying this mismatch between college and what employers need is culture. Soft skills reflect a distinctive culture, and not everyone embraces this culture. Honesty is not a universally admired trait, nor is punctuality, neatness, a strong work ethic, agreeableness, or multiple other “soft skill” traits so necessary to running a successful enterprise.

Even if community colleges recognized the importance of imparting these traits and possessed the recipe for the secret sauce, this task would likely be rejected as “cultural imperialism” or, to be blunt, imposing whiteness on people of color. Besides, not everybody can be punctual and, that understood, perhaps workplaces should make reasonable accommodations for sloth and other similar costly inclinations, just as they now are legally required to accommodate those with certain physical disabilities. In today’s litigation-happy environment, any employer who refuses to provide such accommodations risks expensive government scrutiny and potential financial settlements. It is easy to imagine employees refusing to learn necessary job skills and insisting they suffer from some murky learning disability precluding them from mastering a computerized cash register.

Unfortunately, while this soft skill problem is universally known among employers, it is nearly unspeakable in public. No business owner can say that the local talent pool is hopelessly intellectually challenged and beyond help. Such honesty contravenes the current political dogma that all problems are fixable via education, and educational fixes will succeed if we just spend enough money. It is taboo to even hint that many of the poor suffer from intractable problems making them unsuitable for a modern economy.

All in all, Biden’s “solution” is just what you’d expect from a government careerist who never ran a business. As far as he is concerned, hiring more teachers at government expense will make the dumb smart and the lazy energetic.

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Image Credit: 

Wikimedia Commons-Xbxg32000, CC BY-SA 3.0

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a retired professor (emeritus) of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He writes from New York.

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flyfisher111
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Several years before retirement I was interviewing for someone with a chemistry background. HR sent me a young fellow whom I had as a Boy Scout, an Eagle scout. Asked him about his chemistry, and he had not studied such things; he was a music major, and "stuff like that was not interesting." Whatever I asked, he answered about music and all his awards. I finally told him he needed to seek a job teaching music since that about all he knew. Later, his mom called and attacked me as it was obviously my fault he failed to get a job. I responded that it was her fault for allowing and financing her son to major in a field that was essentially worthless in the marketplace. Another applicant was a minority who arrived carrying a new leather briefcase and dressed to go to a rather wild party. Her husband and 2 year old child accompanied her. He was dressed in lime green shoes with orange laces, orange pants down to his knees, and a filthy t shirt (strange that I recall that). He laid down on the couch in the lobby, turned on the music and allowed the kid to wreck the place. In the meantime, she informed me that the job was rightfully hers because (a) she was a minority, (b) because she had attained her degree while married (is that a qualification?). Throughout the - very short - interview, she told me how it was supposed to be. Apparently, nobody explained to her what an interview was. Another young man had a degree from a 4th rate school, if it could be rated at that. He exploded when I told him what the entry level chemist's job paid. He was expecting 4 times that, because that's what a MIT degree paid. Entirely too many kids who had no business in college, because they simply didn't have what it takes, and they end up in majors that are worthless in the marketplace. That what happens when government gets into education. The US does not need this.
 
 

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Doug
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..."many of the poor suffer from intractable problems".....indeed, but much easier to throw money around indiscriminately than honestly look at the many and deep "intractable" problems that have been here, festering for decades
 
 

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RubySwoon
Correct. And that money they're throwing around is OURS, the taxpayer. I want my money to go toward paying for my own kid's college education and not some stranger's.
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RubySwoon
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Excellent commentary! Gives me hope that kids who were taught soft skills well by their parents will be in demand in most workplaces. The problem lies with the rest of the hired woke staff who will find the habits of the dedicated professional threatening and therefore agitate to get him or her "canceled." I've been a victim of this myself, twice now. I have focus, discipline, a solid work ethic and discretion and maturity. These traits caught the eyes of our best clients, and they all wanted to work with me over staff who'd been there longer but were much less efficient and effective. Regardless of my earnest attempts to mentor younger employees, or to teach them many of the tips and tricks I knew, they simply took, took, and took from me and then, fearful and insecure about their own ability to compete with the high standards I set for myself as a polite, client-facing professional, they organized lies and subterfuge to create a hostile working place for me. When management wasn't responsive to my concerns and my health began to deteriorate from the stress of all the discreet assaults on my work and character, I was forced to resign. Let's hope that business owners refuse to hire for "culture fit," as we're seeing now, and return to hiring for one's experience, KSAs, and EQ/IQ.
 
 

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kristie_lazenberry
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I see a very clear undertone (you seem to have tried to hide it) of cultural bias and even racism in this piece. Yes, I wrote the "R" word. You talk about thin-skinned people in meetings complained about discrimination and unfair treatment. Believe me, discrimination and unfair treatment happens all the time in places of business and you are complaining about it being brought up? You clearly have no understanding of what people who are not 'you' actually go through on a daily basis. It's just a pain to you. One of the soft skills you need is "empathy".
 
 

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Natalia Przybylski
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I'm afraid I have to disagree with this at all; whoever wrote this didn't take the time to travel and learn about cultures/ countries with a free college like mine. You have public universities and private ones; people preferred public because they are complete and prestigious. However, universities only have several sit, so to get in one of those, you have to work hard and have excellent grades. Otherwise, you have to go to a private university; I find that doctors from my country, for example, are a lot more knowledgeable than doctors here, I think in part because their drive isn't money, but a vocation, here in the USA parents save all their lives to send their kids to become lawyers, engineers, doctors, and only wealthy people, or people who saved all their lives can send kids to college, so if you have the next Einstein and it happens to be a minority from low-income family; you will never know because that person would never have a fair shot... I think that what Biden is doing is brilliant! Americans need to expand their minds use more common sense ... In the long run, it will benefit everyone.
 
 

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drhindsight
With all due respect, I think you will find that in your country the people are much more homogeneous and of one culture and standards for education are strong and upheld. Things that can work in small, homogeneous populations, do not work in large diverse populations. The first thing to suffer are rigorous standards, to keep people who really do not belong in college, in there.
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