America needs a better-educated work force – but President Obama’s plan for “free” community college is not the way to get it.
By 2020, two in three jobs will require some higher education to perform. These realities have helped to propel Obama’s recent proposal to make the first two years of community college free to any student willing to work for it.
The U.S. has a serious shortage of educated, skilled workers and Obama claims his plan is the first step to reversing that trend. The program would cost about $6 billion a year. The federal government would cover about 75 percent of the costs and the states would cover the other 25 percent. The free tuition proposal would be available to all. It would be renewable for a second year, if a student maintains a 2.5 GPA. Community college tuition averages about $3,800 per year.
While the President’s proposal sounds appealing to many, behind the rhetoric there are serious problems. The President proposes making community college free for the first two years, as a means of boosting educational attainment and work force skills.
But a closer look reveals the proposal does little to remedy America’s workforce problems. For example, only 21 percent of full-time community college students earn an associate’s degree within three years. And only one in five community college students earns a bachelor’s degree within six years.
President Obama wants to boost college attendance to improve the number of skilled workers and improve social mobility. However, he fails to realize college completion does not necessarily translate to a skilled workforce or social mobility. Median earnings for college graduates have not budged since the 1980s.
The President’s proposal to provide two years of free tuition for those enrolled in community colleges may sound like a great way to overcome the main obstacle to higher education, especially for low-income students. However, tuition – or not being to afford it – is usually not the main obstacle to completion of a degree for low-income students. Transportation or housing concerns are oftentimes more significant concerns.
The President’s proposal is built on the principle that if you provide money for tuition, they will enroll. That’s not necessarily so. Oftentimes those in need don’t apply for federal student assistance because the application process is too long (100 questions) and they are intimidated by the process. Also, many who are eligible don’t apply because they don’t want the stigma that comes with receiving government assistance. In addition, federal assistance is limited to six years, and many students take more than six years to complete a degree.
But there are other problems, such as hidden costs. Encouraging more students to enter community college invariably means offering more remedial courses. Sixty-eight percent of community college students take remedial courses. Any spike in enrollment is likely to come with a jump in remedial courses. Where will funding for those courses come from? What‘s even more troubling is that only 30 percent of those who enroll in remedial courses graduate eight years later.
President’s plan is ill conceived
Obama says his program provides low-income students an opportunity to finish school and a chance at a better future. He says everyone is eligible for two years of free community college under his plan. However, how can the program be considered universal if students from families with incomes of $200,000 or more are not eligible? The provision makes upper-income households ineligible, which likely will sever the support of a key constituency.
The President is counting on free tuition for community college students being a game-changer. It’s not. At most, the proposed program would provide about $3,800 a year in tuition benefits. For students who on average make about $30,000 a year, that’s hardly a game-changer. Obama also forgets that low-income students are already eligible for federal and state grants. This assistance essentially makes higher education free for many low-income students. In reality, the program would in essence be providing subsidies to middle-class students who don’t qualify for already existing government assistance.
But the President’s proposal raises other questions, large questions. The state share of the $60 billion program is $15 billion. That’s an average of $300 million per state. Where will those funds come from?
The Obama Administration patterns the federal program after a Tennessee program that has been in existence only a few years. Most importantly, though there has been little evidence that the program has been successful, but the President is proposing to “nationalize” it nonetheless.
Obama’s proposal zeroes in on overcoming college attendance costs as the solution to America’s workforce problems. His proposal boosts enrollment but raises two other important questions: First, is it wise to expand attendance at institutions that have historically had low graduation rates? Second, is it wise to provide college students with “free education”?
Let’s first remember nothing is free. There is a cost to everything whether you bear it directly or not. Shouldn’t students have some skin in the game? Aren’t students more likely to take education more seriously when they are paying for some of it themselves? Reducing the costs of education to zero may only attract unmotivated students into a program that may just become another government handout.
The President’s biggest mistake is to think reducing the cost of education will remedy America’s workforce problem. Cost and access are not the biggest obstacles to success; the quality of the education is. As stated previously, 68 percent of community college students must enroll in remedial classes. Don’t those figures point to real problems at the K-12 level?
Despite these criticisms, there are still ways that the government can help to improve American education and make students better able to compete in a global economy. A few basic principles should guide this discussion. First, the federal government should have a limited role in higher education. Forty years of student aid has shown us student aid’s biggest impact is to drive up the cost of higher education. Expanding higher education has produced a glut of graduates in many unmarketable fields and failed to provide many of the expected economic benefits.
Second, states should continue to be the laboratories for education reform. History has proven they are the best incubator for ideas for education and other areas and they should continue to lead.
Lastly, government can take specific steps to remedy the education problem. First, expand school choice. Who knows better than parents what schooling is best for their children? Expanding educational opportunities for children – especially low-income children – can infuse a much-needed competitive impulse into the process and provide significant educational benefits that can often last a lifetime. Expanding educational opportunities through school choice is a powerful way to reverse these trends, especially for those students who need it most. Government can also help by cutting taxes, spending wisely and lowering barriers to entry for businesses. Creation of alternative forms of credentialing by professional or private organizations can also help to improve America’s work force. Finally, government can help to aid these efforts by highlighting companies such as CVS and UPS that have commendable higher education benefits programs and encourage other companies to do so.
There is no doubt America needs more highly trained and educated workers. Conservatives will not quibble with that assessment. They will, however, disagree with a plan that is ill-conceived, impractical, and based on questionable assumptions, and which offers no guarantees of success. It’s a proposal that North Carolina can live without.