Last week the president feigned striking a blow for lower college costs with his proposal to make junior colleges free for all attendees meeting minimal academic standards. True to form, the president has taken on something not heretofore considered an impediment to college attendance with an initiative that will cost billions of dollars a year. Simply put, it’s a crass move that puts politics over policy.
The main flaw in the president’s proposal is that it misdiagnoses the problem. Virtually no one is failing to get a degree because their local junior college is too pricey: Tuition at community colleges is somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 a year. It’s not chump change, but neither does it impose the sort of crippling debt that the president likes to bemoan.
What’s more, students from middle- and working-class households typically qualify for copious financial aid that can be used for community and four-year colleges alike—most state and federal aid doesn’t specify that recipients attend a four-year institution. Many community colleges also give merit-based financial aid to exceptional students.
And while enrolling in a community college as a prelude to a four-year degree makes a lot of sense, most people who attend one don’t plan to complete a bachelor’s. The Community College Research Center estimates that only 20 percent of all students transfer to a four-year college.
In short, the cost of community college is way down on the list of barriers to low-income students completing degrees. But it’s easy to see why the White House would make this proposal: It’s a gesture that ostensibly targets the working-class students who are more likely to go to community colleges. To be clear, these students will benefit in that they’ll spend less to attend community college. But will more of them continue their studies if their first two years are free? There’s no reason to think the numbers will change much. The real beneficiaries may be the middle- and upper-class students who save themselves a few thousand bucks by doing a year or two of community college before going off to State Tech University. (As someone who attended his local community college and later taught at a couple of large state universities, I thought it was clear that kids got better instruction at the former.)
And while enrollment will surge if tuition is free, it’s not clear that the resources going to community colleges will increase in proportion. Tuition only accounts for about 30 percent of their revenues. If federal and state subsidies—and states participating in the program must also contribute toward tuition—don’t keep pace with enrollment, the quality’s going to suffer and students wanting to move to a four-year school are going to be fighting to get into the classes they need.
President Obama’s proposal would create the educational equivalent of the mortgage interest deduction: a subsidy that goes mainly to middle- and upper-class households and does nothing to achieve its purported goal. And his proposal, if enacted, would be as sacrosanct and politically untouchable as the mortgage interest deduction.
In 2001, shortly before leaving office, the Clinton administration dropped what it proudly referred to (off the record) as a “turd bomb” on the incoming administration of George W. Bush by issuing a rule requiring that all government agencies provide information to their constituents in whatever languages were commonly spoken in their region. It was—and was designed to be—unworkable: To comply with the original strictures, the Los Angeles DMV would have had to issue written exams in over 100 languages, while also having someone available to speak with a constituent in each of those languages. But its manifest unfeasibility meant that the Bush administration would be forced to scale it down to something a DMV or county clerk’s office could actually manage, which would then give its critics ammunition for blasting Bush for being indifferent to the plight of poor immigrants.
The junior college proposal is Obama’s own parting bomb. No one in higher education wants to see this made law—not junior college presidents, who would see demand outstrip resources, nor four-year college presidents, who would see their enrollment fall precipitously. More important, virtually no one would graduate from college solely thanks to this massive subsidy.
But when it fails to pass Congress, Democrats will be able to pose as defenders of the working classes while crucifying Republicans for being indifferent towards the plight of the poor. Which is the purpose of most proposals from our speech-giver in chief.
Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington.