Few educational issues, at least the nerdy kind I write about, get people riled up. Angry demonstrators rarely carry banners demanding, "More Research Papers in High School!" or "Down With Credit Recovery!"
But one school issue — free college tuition — has been getting big political play this year. Community college counselor John Mullane wishes that would stop. He has been spending much of his time explaining why free tuition would be bad for his students.
How can that be? Many community college students don't have much money. Why not make their struggles to get an education easier by making sure they don't have to pay that bill?
"Providing tuition-free opportunities at public colleges and universities is far superior than the typical hodgepodge of aid packages and loans that are cobbled together by many students," says the nonpartisan, nonprofit Campaign for Free College Tuition. Some polls show more than 80 percent support for that idea.
Mullane is not allowed to promote his views on state and federal education spending during his working hours at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn. His job is to help students negotiate the complicated pathways of learning so they can establish a career and a life. What does he know of legislative politics?
He knows community colleges. He has spent his personal and vacation time doing research and making convincing arguments that getting rid of tuition would make it harder for his students to earn the certificates and diplomas they need.
"States can make college as free as they want," he told me, "but if they don't have a system in place to help students get through these institutions and graduate on time, with a college degree that allows them to go directly into a good job or to fully transfer the credits to a bachelor's degree, they are doing more harm than good."
The free tuition idea, he said, "involves spending hundreds of billions of dollars and flooding public colleges and universities with new students." Increased spending on tuition to make sure everyone gets a free ride would mean less money to hire more professors and less money to expand room in the most important classes so that students can get what they need to graduate, he said.
Mullane testified before the Connecticut legislature in favor of a bill that would have allowed students to transfer all community college credits to the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut State universities. The two big systems opposed that measure. They said their transfer systems were working fine, despite research showing that only 6 percent of Connecticut community college students are transferring credits to the universities.
Sixty-one percent of community college students told the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas in 2016 that they could get the certificates and degrees they sought. Yet only 39 percent of community college students get a certificate, an associate degree or a bachelor's degree from a four-year college within six years.
Only 15 percent of students who begin in a community college ever earn a bachelor's degree. Traditionally, colleges have fought for more students — something free tuition would give them — but have done little to ensure successful student outcomes because state funding has usually been based on enrollment.
Mullane endorses what many scholars of the community college system say: States need to tear down traditions that keep many students stuck in remedial courses and leave transfer paths to four-year schools that look like a Halloween season cornfield maze.
Mullane said he is pushing for "state laws that mandate statewide transfer pathways for students." Then, they have to be enforced, he said — which could prove even more difficult. That is not happening with many such laws at the moment.
There is good news in some parts of the country. Florida has one of the best transfer systems in the country. But its reforms are complicated and hard to summarize in one slogan. How can it beat a movement with a banner as simple and compelling as "Free Tuition Now"?
Mathews is an education columnist for the Washington Post. He created the annual America's Most Challenging High Schools rankings of high schools.