President Barack Obama is a champion of community colleges—not only in his recent State of the Union address, but regularly since the first days of his administration.
Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer here in Chicago, is not convinced. College, especially community college, “is not a sure route to the middle class,” he writes in Only One Thing Can Save Us (The New Press, 2014). The context is all wrong. There are hardly enough stateside manufacturing jobs to sustain our service/knowledge economy. The U.S. trade deficit is over the top. Authentic worker participation in decision-making is rare. Plus, students carry too much debt on their credit cards and need education loans. Then, there is the high dropout rate—a topic to be examined in a future Working Catholic column. For these reasons and more, says Geoghegan, a push for more college does not automatically make us better off.
The conversation about young adults has things out of order. In a section of the book provocatively titled “Democracy or Education,” Geoghegan details why a stable working class is a prerequisite to any upward mobility by way of college education. Oh yes, those who graduate from an elite university will likely do fine—barring any major setbacks in their personal life. But those graduates, with some exceptions, already come from successful families. The sluggishness in our economy remains if enrollment numbers are jacked up without first or simultaneously building a culture and economy of steady work at a family wage. “Increasing income equality is a way to get more college” not the other way around, Geoghegan concludes.
To Obama’s promotion of community colleges and specifically to his idea for free tuition, Geoghegan says: “Mister President, let it go.” Tuition or no tuition, most young workers will not get through community college, much less obtain a bachelor’s degree. Thus, what Obama and others really communicate to young adults is that “there’s no hope for you.” Their only alternative proposal for these workers is a minimum wage increase to $10.10. In effect, Geoghegan concludes, society says: “It’s too late for them and they’re toast.”
Droel is the author of Monday Eucharist (National Center for the Laity , PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $9 includes postage). He is a 33-year veteran teacher at a community college and intends to modify Geoghegan’s analysis in a future column.