Free Community College? Not quite.

President Obama, the Giver-in-Chief, has come up with a doozy of an idea this time.  The President announced (via a Youtube-like video with the hashtag #FreeCommunityCollege) that he would like to see the first two years of community college free for those who “work for it.”  There’s a novel idea.

The President is correct that higher education is the path forward for Americans looking for opportunities.   Community colleges provide an affordable start for students seeking a four-year college degree.  In addition, the vocational programs that many of them offer are vital to American growth and promise respectable and often high-paying jobs in service industries.  Here in Houston, the demand for welders with the proper training and certification from our area two-year colleges has pushed welding salaries in the six figure range.

The weakness of the President’s proposal is that it’s a political stunt based on a faulty premise.  Here are five reasons why “Free Community College” is a bad idea.

1.  It’s not free.  The President’s proposal is that the Federal Government (meaning taxpayers) provide up to three-quarters of the cost of attending a junior college for the first two years.  We don’t have any hard data from the White House on what this would cost, only their acknowledgement that it will be “significant.”  The White House suggests the program would save community college students an average of $3800 in tuition.   That’s great.  If all 9 million community college students in the 50 states benefit from the new program, that’s a price tag of $34 billion dollars.  That’s not so great.

2.  It’s inefficient.   We have great programs now that assist low-income students in the form of grants.  The proposal to pay for the first two years of community college is effectively a grant, but many of those who will benefit from it aren’t low income students.  The average cost of going full-time for the coming year is estimated to run around $3300.  There are many families for whom the cost of attending the local junior college is chump change.  For other families, that $3300 is an insurmountable  financial hurdle.  Providing a financial grant to cover the first two years to everyone doesn’t target the money to those students who would most benefit from it and are most likely to pursue the vocational programs that junior colleges offer.

3.  It’s not about the students.  If the President really felt strongly about this issue it could have been dealt with during the first two years of his administration.  The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and could have pushed this through with little problem.  There were enough liberal and moderate Republicans in the Senate then that would have supported it.  Why now?  Because the opposition party now controls Congress and the President wants to hang them out to dry.  He’ll propose a series of gimme-projects and defy the Republicans in Congress to shoot them down.    It’s great fodder to shore up the youth vote for 2016, especially after the tepid response the Democrats got from them during the midterms.    I suspect the next proposal from the President will be student-loan forgiveness.  I predicted it here.

4.  It helps the cause.  Compared to four-year colleges and universities, junior colleges are a financial bargain.  According to a recent College Board survey, community colleges cost about one-third the price of four-year public schools, and one-tenth the price of four-year private schools.   The real losers here will be private schools, which risk seeing a huge decrease in freshman enrollment as people flock to claim their free tuition at the local junior college.  It’s already a challenge that many private schools face.  So what’s the political angle?

Public universities have long been the bane of many conservatives because of their liberal bent.  The remnants of conservative thought in higher education have been largely at small, private, faith-based schools across the nation.  The President’s proposal helps his allies in the public intelligentsia sector while punishing the smaller, private schools where all those “bitter-clingers” send their kids.  These schools will find themselves increasingly strapped for resources as local junior colleges give away credits for free. If Our Lady of Unborn Life and Traditional Marriage University goes belly up, well…..

5.  It’s about power.  In essence, the President’s proposal nationalizes the first two years of college.  Federal funding for primary and secondary public education is a relatively small part of that budget, but it’s influential because dollars are tight.  And with influence comes power.

Look at the debate over the Common Core.  Adoption of Common Core standards comes with federal money.  Failure to adopt the standards, or something else approved by the feds, results in a loss of funding (and maybe even penalties under the older No Child Left Behind Program).  Coughing up 75% of the first two years of junior college (the states have to pay the rest) buys a tremendous amount of influence.  What sort of influence?

The initial proposal suggests three areas of influence.  1) The Feds will only give money to community colleges which offers classes transferable to state four-year colleges and universities.  No biggie there.  That’s what most junior colleges do already. 2) To get money, junior colleges must also offer occupational programs with high graduation rates (that sounds easy to fix, doesn’t it?) in high demand jobs.  Who determines what a “high-demand” degree is?  Social Worker helping the poor and down trodden?  Yes.  Police Officer abusing the poor and downtrodden?  No.  3) And from the press release – “Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.”  Ah yes, student outcomes.

Student outcomes are the fashionable “learning objectives” that committees of egg-headed academics put together when they’re not doing important research.  Learning objectives could be anything from “memorizing the preamble to the Constitution” to “understanding the danger of handguns, the importance of carbon offsets, and the benefits of multiculturalism.”  You get the idea.

If the President really wants to make a difference in the lives of America’s young people through education reform, let’s try pushing back against teacher’s unions, supporting school choice for parents, and improving the quality of secondary education in the US so that kids who graduate from high school actually have employable skills.  And let’s start looking for ways to cut the costs of higher education rather than throwing more federal aid into an area rife with financial problems largely because of federal aid.

Free Community College?  There’s a cost to this proposal, and dollars are the least of it.

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