Higher education has problems. It has become enormously expensive and many students find themselves tied to student loans that are predatory and can not be discharged in bankruptcy. The ranks and salaries of administrators continue to rise while faculty hires are flat and many faculty are hired as adjuncts — paid minimally and with almost no benefits. Clearly, something needs to change. And that thing is ..
… uh …
Obama is proposing two years of free community college for students who attend at least half-time and maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5. That wouldn’t cover the entire cost for most students — students who finish community college in two years are rare — but the White House estimates it would save 9 million students around $3,800 per year in tuition if every state chose to participate.
The White House said details will be in the president’s 2016 budget request but declined to offer specifics on how much the program would cost. It’s not clear how the program would work, how the grants to states would be structured, or how the federal money would interact with the Pell Grant, federal aid for low-income students that about 38 percent of all community college students receive.
Obama is pitching this as helping poor people. But as even Vox has to admit, poor students are already covered by Pell Grants. What this really is is a middle class subsidy and not a particularly great one. The first two years of college will be free but two years of college is not going to do you any good. You need to graduate. What this really is about is hooking more students into college who don’t really need it so that they’ll feel obligated for the remaining two years. It’s not clear that there will be any real benefit here.
The other huge problem is that the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require postsecondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects to see the greatest total growth by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of postsecondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. Most of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.
Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.
Moreover, it does nothing about the big problem, which is exploding tuition rates at private and public universities. The main reason those tuitions are exploding is because of government subsidies and guaranteed loans. There is little downside to raising tuition for universities because the government has promised to pay or guarantee whatever they charge. As Scott Shackford points out, the Obama plan would encourage community colleges — one of the few affordable areas of higher education — to follow suit with administrative bloat. California’s community college system — which have a wait list nearly half a million names long — is relatively cheap at $1500 per year. But why on Earth would they maintain such cheap tuition if the federal government has guaranteed that it will pay whatever they charge?
Actually, I’m giving Obama too much credit. There is an idea behind this but it has nothing to do with education, opportunity or community college. He’s pandering to young voters. He’s promising them a benefit that will never materialize in a transparent effort to troll for votes. Why else would he put this forward when there is precisely zero chance that Congress will do it?
Look, I like community colleges. I taught at one when I was in grad school. I earned some valuable teaching experience and a little bit of money. Teaching there made be a better instructor because people paying for their own education are going to make damned sure they get something out of it. The operation was reasonably efficient — I had exactly one boss and she was teaching classes of her own. Some of the students blew off the class, but many were motivated, interested and attentive. Some were getting two cheap years of college before going on to a major university (Clark Howard often recommends this as a way to save money on college). Others were going into trades. It was a good deal all around.
The last thing community colleges need is a river of free federal money. They have their job and they do it reasonably well. They don’t need to be turned into big bloated universities. Not everyone needs to go to college. And they certainly don’t need to go to a poor man’s Yale.
Update: Tyler Cowen:
Overall my take is that the significant gains are to be had at the family level and at the primary education level, and that the price of community college is not a major bottleneck under the status quo.
Ding! But solving problems at the primary education level is hard and involves unions. Easier to throw money at community colleges.