Sunday, January 11, 2015

President Obama says Community Colleges should be free

That’s nice.

I’m a big proponent of the development of human capital and getting more students to engage in the process of doing that is a good thing for them, the economy, and the country as a whole. 

I’m not a fan of the word “free.”

“The requirements:

  • What students have to do: Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.
  • What community colleges have to do: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.
  • What the federal government has to do: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.”

In theory this sounds like a really neat idea.  Students need to maintain some grades, colleges need to upgrade their programs and reform their process of outcomes, and there is a perception of actual government investment in Junior Colleges. 

But it’s not a good idea and probably won’t pass anyway.  Here are the three problems with it.

“Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.”

I was kill joy in my classes when this came out the other night because we are right in the middle of a Mock Congress, and there is that Constitution thing that prohibits the President from making laws and appropriating money.  Politically it’s great to say “don’t worry kids, this is free and we will figure out how to pay for it”, except when it actually isn’t free and the government has no damn clue how to pay for it.  That’s without quarter of the cost going as an unfunded mandate to states.  Maybe some greater planning is in order.

The second problem revolves around the incentive of making tuition free for students with a C average.  The controversial statistic that only 15% of enrolled community college ever get an actual degree can’t be ignored, and either there needs to be some serious discussion about who is using community college resources or what the real task of the community college is.  I thought is was about access to the development of skills and knowledge.  If that’s the case then 18 year olds need to put more into the system that simply time because the statistics show that community colleges are now places where a lot of potential goes to wither and die.

The final problem I have with this plan is that it conveniently avoids the whole issue of wage stagnation and income inequality within the United States.  The value of wealth in this country, as felt by the middle class, has flat-lined since the early 1980’s, while the top 1% of earners have seen their value of wealth soar by percentages not seen in modern human history.  I don’t have a problem with the rich getting richer.  But if the rest of the population doesn’t feel some sort of wealth accumulation you are setting the stage for economic catastrophe and political instability.  This plan ignores the problem by framing one of the the main issues as the cost of community colleges, which are still very cheap and the opportunities of financial aid are still fairly plentiful.  This will increase the number of people going to community colleges but there is little evidence that it will actually develop skills and knowledge, or help solve a much greater macroeconomic issue. 

So this is a nice way to drive up a political base and get kids all ramped up into hating Republicans in Congress when they say “no.”  But hating Republicans in Congress is not that hard.  Hell, hating Congress is not that hard.  And while this really neat and fun to think about, in the end it’s poorly thought out vision that could be so much better.

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