Obama’s community college plan: free is a very good price

“Free is a very good price,” Portland pitchman Tom Peterson used to say in ubiquitous advertisements for his retail stores.

Barack Obama must have been listening to Tom, based on his new proposal that community college be tuition-free for students who meet minimal standards.

“Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few,” Obama said on Jan. 9.

Portland Community College registration.

Portland Community College registration.

Of course, despite the tendency of Democrats to define things paid for by the government as “free” and spending on favored programs as “investments”, Obama’s community college proposal won’t really be free. Federal taxes and state revenue will need to pay the bill, so either something else will have to be cut or taxes will have to be raised.

All the beneficiaries of Obama’s proposed junior college program would need to do is attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program. What a deal.

The Federal Government would cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college and the states would be expected to come up with the rest.

How much will it all cost? Who knows? The White House said the free-for-all program would help about 9 million students each year and that it would save a full-time community college student $3,800 in tuition per year on average. If all 9 million students go full-time, that would translate into a whopping annual cost of $34.2 billion, with $25.6 billion of that coming from the feds and $8.6 billion from the states.

And then there’d be the additional facilities and teachers community colleges would need pay for to accommodate the influx of free-for-all students? Who would pay for that?

Obama says he’ll include details on the federal costs in his January 20 State of the Union address and in his proposed budget.

Whatever number he comes up with, it’s likely to grow year after year because community college costs will grow, particularly with guaranteed federal money flowing in.

Another legitimate concern is grade inflation. As noted earlier, to get the free tuition students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA. Anybody who thinks that community college instructors would not be inclined to inflate grades, and even be subtly pressed to do so, to keep the money coming is naive.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the completion rate at 2-year degree-granting institutions is pretty abysmal. Just 31 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a certificate or associate’s degree in fall 2009 attained it within 150 percent of the normal time required to do so, or within 3 years for a 2-year degree. The graduation rate was just 20 percent at public 2-year institutions.

Obama’s plan seems to assume that the main thing holding students back from satisfactorily completing coursework at community colleges is the cost, particularly of tuition. But many other factors are likely to be determinative, including poor K-12 preparation for a significant number of students and the need for remedial courses that many students can’t successfully complete. Making community college free for everybody won’t solve these problems.

In fact, without any skin in the game, students may be even less motivated to complete their studies.

Another glaring weakness of Obama’s proposal is the absence of any income qualifications for the tuition aid. Presumably the executive’s son and the gas station attendant’s daughter would both be equally eligible for the giveaway. At a time of severe budget constraints, what’s the point of that?

But why worry about the details. It’ll be free.










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