• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Simplify, Simplify

The new Clinton plan on college affordability.


July 7, 2016

Very smart people sometimes have trouble getting out of their own way.

One of my first acts at Brookdale was to take a form that faculty were required to fill out annually reporting on their professional development activities and reduce it from about six pages to one, consisting of exactly two questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the caliber of reporting on the forms immediately improved (as did the readability). When people weren’t asked to fill out fourteen subcategories, they were able to identify the most important things and communicate them clearly.

Simplicity isn’t simple. It requires identifying the purpose of the enterprise, and putting considerable thought into the design phase. But it pays off in implementation.

The same principle applies to much bigger issues.

Last year I took Hillary Clinton to task for making the same mistake in her higher ed proposal that she did twenty years earlier in her health care proposal: she over-engineered it, pre-compromising in such a way as to deny the legislative branch any meaningful option to assert its own agency other than a Great Refusal. This week she amended her higher ed proposal, and…


It relies on phase-ins, income verifications, coordination of multiple levels of government, “skin in the game,” scorecards, favored and disfavored fields…

It’s the same mistake. And unless she rethinks it, it will meet the same fate.

(To be fair, it’s not all complicated. “Year-round Pell” is simple, good policy, and good politics, too. Kudos on that.)

I’ve read plenty of silliness about alleged similarities between Sanders supporters and Trump supporters. The kernel of truth in that is that both Sanders and Trump offer clear, simple, understandable proposals, whether they involve making college free or building border walls. Simple proposals can be great or terrible, but at least they’re clear. We know what we’re debating.

The Clinton proposal has a maximum income for “free” public higher education, and the ceiling will move over several years. That means a burden of income verification and, depending on implementation, real opacity in cost for folks just over the line for any given year. It also tacitly (if unintentionally) leaves the door open to a much more pronounced economic polarization among institutions. It assumes the cooperation of state governments held by the other party, and doesn’t even address local ones. And since each part relies on each other part, any attempt to piece it apart would likely backfire.  

In other words, it muddles its potential core constituency, it invites gaming, and it makes advocacy nearly impossible. Assuming Republicans hold the House -- which seems like a safe assumption at this point -- the proposal would be DOA for lack of passionate advocacy. It’s impossible to generate passion for sliding-scale phaseouts. That’s not how this works.

Make it simple.

“Free community college” is a simple message. Even better, it allows room for the legislative branch to work out implementation details; in other words, it allows representatives a role other than a flat “yes” or “no.” With a simple message, passionate advocacy is possible; with a Republican house, passionate advocacy would be necessary.

I’m not saying that the simpler message will necessarily work; nothing is that easy. But it would stand a far better chance than a complicated, nuanced, pre-engineered solution that requires total submission. Forget income phaseouts. Public libraries are free for everyone, as are public schools. The model already exists, and it has the virtue of simplicity. Why not use it?

If your model of compromise is additive -- we’ll just add subclause c under addendum f -- you aren’t thinking hard enough. This is important enough to simplify. Get the people excited, and their representatives will follow. Confuse or frustrate the people, and the outcome is predictable.  

Making community college available to everyone again -- just as the Truman commission intended -- is a fine and worthy goal. Don’t muddy it with pre-engineered wonkery. Sometimes boiling it down to a couple of questions gets you a much better response.



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