Free Community College Supports Marriage and Family

Marriage has fractured along class lines. Conservatives and liberals alike can agree that socio-economic class has come to define all couples, gay and straight, seeking access to the institution of marriage. However, the White House's "America's College Promise" and "American Technical Training Fund" could be one step towards leveling the marriage market field.

The recently published book, Marriage Markets, by legal scholars June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, explains how college-educated, upper middle class individuals seek and tend to attain the stability of marriage for themselves and their children while the high school or less educated, those living closer to the poverty line, opt out and begin families without the benefits of marriage.

For example, they introduce us to the life trajectories of two couples: Amy and Tyler. Lily and Carl. Amy and Tyler meet in law school, wait until their late 20s to marry, and hold off having children until both settle into their careers and weather several geographical moves. According to Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institute, as reported in Knot Yet, they follow the "Success Sequence:" graduate high school, get married, and then have children. Amy and Tyler see marriage as an asset and a safety net that frees them to invest intentionally and well in the next generation, their children.

What about Lily and Carl? Lily is four months pregnant, unmarried, working two jobs, and trying to fix a broken down car. Carl doesn't have a job and lives with his mother. Carbone and Cahn summarize the plight that Lily and Carl face:

"For those whose incomes place them in the bottom third of the population, increasing disparities between men and women have made both more likely to give up on each other. Women in these communities view commitment to a man who runs up the credit card bill, cycles in and out of jobs, deals drugs on the side as more of a threat than an asset to the ability to care for children...These patterns encourage women to invest in their own resources rather than the men in their lives, and men move on to new relationships when their existing ones hit rough passages. Family stability is an inevitable causality."

Lily and Carl see marriage as both an impossible dream and a liability.

As we see with these two couples, the fracturing of marriage doesn't end with who gets married, but begins with who is marriageable in the first place. College graduates like Amy and Tyler share similar views on gender equality, employment, and child support and thus are equally attractive to each other as marriage partners. In contrast, those who lack a degree, stable employment, and affordable housing create an unattractive marriage pool. Carl will not get married and in Lily's eyes is not marriageable. Echoing the insights of Hanna Rosin in The End of Men, Kay Hymowitz in Manning Up, and Kathy Edin who profiled inner city fathers in Doing the Best I Can, Carbone and Cahn stress that a decline in marriageable men destabilizes adult coupling and ultimately jeopardizes families because marriage remains the most reliable way to channel resources to the next generation.

But what if Lily and Carl had access to a free community college education where seeking and attaining their Associates degrees could accomplish several professional and personal goals simultaneously? Vocationally, Lily and Carl would meet countless mentors in classrooms and study groups; elders who can inspire and equip them to become our community's future nurses, famers, mechanics, and computer programmers. Community colleges excel in drawing an intergeneration base of students so that Lily and Carl would have not only professors but also fellow classmates to apprentice, who can broaden their horizons to potential jobs or further education. Personally, Lily and Carl may need to be working students and a community college's schedule tends to value flexibility and often provides daycare for children. Relationally, community college education could place them in a potentially positive marriage market, surrounded by equally driven people who hold a common work ethic.

I speak to these strengths from first hand experience. I attend a community college, not as a degree seeker but as a part of a continuing education program in dance. When our family first moved to Decatur, Illinois, a Midwest-city defined by agriculture and the manufacturing of construction equipment, I sought out the best ballet teachers and performance opportunities. Richland Community College was the place to find them. Two days a week I join in the discipline of ballet class and of rehearsals preparing for semester performances with other adults working full-time as well as young adults seeking degrees. During our evening classes, we park our cars near the CDL truck driving training route, walk past the day care drop-off lane, enjoy the enticing aromas of foods prepared by the culinary students that fill the hallways, and say hello to groups of students studying across the campus. I see each week how community college offers for my "emerging adult" classmates both an opportunity to attaining educational goals at a reasonable cost and a chance to meet liked minded people who may prove to be good marriage partners and parents. Free community college may be a creative pro-marriage initiative.

Follow Amy Ziettlow on Twitter. Portions of this post were first published as part of a book review for The Christian Century.