- Is free community college good policy when college is no longer the proxy for talent or a ticket to upward mobility?
- “Free” community college is not free; it merely shifts the burden of costs from students to taxpayers.
- Programs already exist to help low-income students access community college and higher education.
- Apprenticeships, competency based education programs and other educational options offer more effective ways for developing a better-educated workforce.
Earlier this year Governor Cooper toured Linamar Corporation, a precision machining and assembly company located outside Asheville, North Carolina. In remarks that day, Cooper talked about his campaign promise of free community college tuition for any North Carolina student. He said:
In my talks with business owners, I hear time and time again that they have job openings, but can’t find workers with the skills necessary to fill them. Making community college more accessible means more of our high school graduates can learn the skills they need to get good paying jobs.
According to some estimates, since the recession, 95 percent of new jobs require training beyond a high school diploma.i Young people who have no education or skilled vocational training after high school find it increasingly difficult to escape poverty and support a family.
Cooper is proposing to reverse these trends through the NC GROW Scholarship program. Under the program, students who graduated high school and have a 2.0 GPA or better would receive free community college tuition. The NC GROW Scholarship would cover the remaining last dollar of tuition and fees for those who have used other financial aid options. To finance the program, Cooper proposes to use money from the N.C. Education Lottery.
Cooper’s idea is not new. Reduced or free college programs have long been embraced by the Left and the Democratic Party. The North Carolina Democratic Party Platform for 2016 included phrasing supporting the concept of free community college tuition. The NC GROW Scholarship is patterned after a similar program in Tennessee and comes after President Barack Obama proposed a similar federal plan for free community college tuition in 2015. Since then, Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have voiced their support for the concept and expanded it. States such as Tennessee, Rhode Island and New York – and even cities like San Francisco – have begun their own programs to provide tuition free college. In 2008, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beverly Perdue proposed offering two free years of college tuition to help improve North Carolina’s work force.
The Left continues to champion many of the plans for free community college or free college tuition. While Republican majorities in the General Assembly have been largely lukewarm towards Cooper’s plan, be assured the idea is not likely to go away anytime soon. Parents of all political persuasions would certainly welcome relief from ever-rising tuition costs.
Governor Cooper’s free community college tuition program, however, is worse than the problem it allegedly corrects. Yes, we acknowledge that the United States has a shortage of properly educated workers that must be remedied. The most important question is: how does this nation meet that need?
For decades additional education — be it community college or attending a four-year institution — was the way to address those needs. Federal and state financial aid policies encouraged millions of young people to enroll. Since then rising tuition costs have threatened the opportunity for many to attend college. The Left diagnosed the problem as the need to improve access. Hence free community college tuition. This is a faulty diagnosis for several reasons. Cooper touts his plan as an aid to helping students finish school and receive a two-year degree or continue for further education.
The fact is the North Carolina Community College’s Career and College Promise Program already offers three pathways that are directed at helping high school students access tuition-free college or course credit toward a two-year, four-year or technical degree. Students can access free courses in college as early as high school.
In addition to these programs there are other programs designed by local community colleges to reduce the cost of college and increase completion rates. In North Carolina, Brunswick, Isothermal, James Sprunt, Montgomery, Richmond and Sandhills Community colleges have programs put together by public and/or private dollars to offer-tuition free coursework to graduates of local high schools.
Along with public programs, there are private programs designed to do the same. In 2015, Guilford County Schools helped to raise $35 million to help fund the college education of all graduates. The program is a partnership with the controversial Say Yes to Education program that helps to fund and provide wrap-around services for K-12 students with the goal of getting more underserved populations to college.[i]i
These realities make it prudent to examine the assumptions behind Cooper’s proposal for free community college tuition.
Cooper assumes that college is the engine of mobility for all Americans. That may have been the case at one time, but it is not the case for many today. College is no longer synonymous with talent and a skilled labor force. I wrote about it in 2016:
Some workforce analysts assert that by 2020 two in three jobs will require some higher education to perform. The solution, we’re told, is to get more people into school and produce more college graduates.
That makes sense to some, but I’d ask: Is more higher education the only way to get an educated and skilled workforce? Of course, if you’re talking about some jobs, that may be the answer. However, we also have labor shortages in fields such as computing, the skilled trades, auto mechanics and health care. Many jobs in these fields pay well, but don’t require a four-year degree.
Is there a shortage or merely a maldistribution of students? The sad fact is that for every student in business, engineering or a pre-professional program, there are others in less marketable areas such as art history, psychology and history majors. That’s nothing against those fields or those who choose to study in them. But we need to ask: Will our nation be better if we keep generating graduates who have difficulty finding gainful employment?
Our society values a college degree – maybe too much. Over the last two decades, we’ve funneled too many young people toward a four-year degree, when the truth is that many probably would have done better elsewhere.
College, unfortunately, has become a proxy for talent. However, the reality is a college education doesn’t always translate into social or economic mobility. We tend to overlook the other paths to success, such as starting your own business or becoming an apprentice. We tend to overlook the thousands of individuals who through their own ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination achieved the American dream without ever going to college.[ii]
Moreover, newer statistics undercut the idea college is a sure pathway to a good-paying job and prosperity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for university grads are 2.5 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 2000. The research found that the real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages of recent college grads in 2015 was $17.94 or just over $37,000 a year. In 2000, the average hourly rate was $18.41.[iii]
If college is the not the engine of economic success, a proxy for talent or the engine of social mobility; is making community college free a wise policy?
Free college programs – whether they involve community college or four-year colleges —incorrectly assume that price is the most important variable in determining educational outcome. It’s a point that former AEI researcher and now current Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy at the UNC System, Andrew Kelly made in a New York Times opinion piece:
…[F]ree college plans assume that tuition prices are the main obstacle to student success, looking past problems of educational quality and college readiness. Take community colleges, where federal grants cover the price of tuition for the average low-income student. Despite free tuition, just one-third of students from the bottom income quartile who started at a community college in 2003 finished a degree or certificate by 2009. Two-year students from the top income quartile didn’t do much better (42 percent). These numbers suggest that lackluster outcomes are not entirely, or even mostly, a function of tuition prices, but reflect deeper problems. Like the fact that 60 to 70 percent of community college students have to take at least one remedial course, as do 40 percent of those at public four-year institutions. Or the fact that students who attend public four-year colleges with lower graduation rates are less likely to finish than similar peers who attend better schools.[iv]
People have a difficult time completing college for many reasons. When you dive into the data, you find the decision to leave usually derives from a variety of reasons – and oftentimes it’s not money. It can be family issues, scheduling, transportation or a lack of counseling or preparation for college (see here and here). Such realities question the value of such an investment. Funneling dollars to programs with high dropout rates will have little payoff.
Besides being poorly targeted, Cooper’s plan offers last dollar assistance to individuals who graduate high school and have a 2.0 GPA. The fact is most low-income students who attend community college can already receive enough in grants and scholarships to significantly reduce the cost of education. The real impact of Cooper’s plan would be to provide additional benefits to middle and upper income students enrolled in community colleges. Governor Cooper’s free community college tuition proposal is bad policy and it does nothing to reduce the cost of college. The bet is that free community college would increase access for all. However free tuition is essentially the same as capping tuition at free, which is essentially a price control that limits institutional spending to whatever the public is willing to invest. It doesn’t change the institution’s cost structure. What happens when enrollment expands but resources don’t? California had that happen and turned around thousands of students.
While tuition at community colleges has not increased as dramatically as tuition at four year colleges, the trendlines are similar. Free tuition program offer no way to reduce or control instructional costs. Cooper’s program is silent on the need to trim costs or change how higher education is financed. It also ignores the reality that the current problem of not having a sufficient number of skilled workers is a product of a refusal to innovate, poorly designed programs and bad curricula. In other words; institutions bear responsibility as well. When college bears some of the blame, making college more accessible will not solve the problem.
Part II of this article discusses some of the alternatives policymakers can implement now to control the rising cost of higher education and to develop a more educated workforce.