On ‘Free’ Community Colleges

Over on Facebook, my friends and I have had an interesting discussion on the elusive details of the President’s budget/SOTU proposal for ‘free’ community college education.

Because of a New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I rarely delve into long, drawn-out debates on Facebook. It’s usually not worth your time. But I made an exception here, in part because of the thoughtful insights from my friends (and a friend/former teacher!) and partly because I wanted to weigh in further.

Here’s my (lightly edited) rant:

Edward and Shawn, I agree with points you both make. The cost of ignorance is high and not everyone has the opportunity to attend a Jesuit school with great science teachers like Mr. Nolan. (Though the Jesuits are trying as hard as they can with the Cristo Rey model, which is phenomenal.)
 
I love community colleges. My grandfather was a professor at one, and my mother attended there before going to tOSU. I’m just opposed because I don’t think this level of involvement by the government is appropriate. It’s my libertarian side coming out.
 
Realistically, this has ~0% chance of passing Congress. The “Pay Go” rules don’t help because anyone who proposes it on the Democratic side will “pay for it” with a tax increase and not a cut, which is how the game is played in Congress these days.
 
If Obama / Congressional Democrats wanted to be clever, here’s how they’d structure it:
 
1.) You apply for this program and by doing so, you agree to forfeit your Pell Grants entirely.
 
2.) Under Pell Grants, you get up to 12 semesters (six years) worth of grants, which, under maximum level at max time before exhaustion represents a little under $35,000. Of course, not everyone qualifies for Pell Grants, or gets the full amount. But you could argue savings by doing this.
 
3.) Cynically, if you wanted to obtain a 4-year degree, then you’d likely go to the student loan market (effectively nationalized since 2010!) where the government could make the money back. (Though, they’ve already used the “profits” from that to defray the cost of Obamacare and it would be hard to count that twice.)
 
A friend of mine, an analyst type, observed that this would be among the cheaper proposals Obama has proposed, even though the costs would be in the tens of billions, according to some estimates.
 
Two states (and others I am sure) have tried “free college programs.” Their examples are instructive. (I still am weary about government involvement in this, but at the state level it is at least appropriate from a federalism perspective.)
 
Arizona, when I worked for Senator Kyl, had something called an AIMS scholarship. If you met certain requirements under their AIMS program — you got a full tuition waiver at in-state schools, provided you were accepted. Of course, the test was not terribly hard and lots of people qualified. Now, it covers 25%, and is renewable — subject to college-specific requirements — over the remaining three years.
 
It was poorly planned. And it was done by Republicans!
 
Tennessee has the “Tennessee Promise” program, a brainchild of their Republican governor, gives free community and technical college tuition (for 2 years) to high school graduates in the state. The program is funded by the lottery. The program, which I also think was poorly implemented as such measures often are, has seen 58k applicants. Double what they expected. They’re learning Freidman’s adage of “no such thing as a free lunch” despite being well-intentioned.
 
Details on Obama’s plan are still forthcoming, but right now we know you have to have a C+ average, these CC’s have to agree to certain stipulations about their programs and credit transferability, and some vague notions of “student outcomes.” The feds expect states to pick up 25% of the cost.
 
While I agree with Mr. Nolan about college/knowledge having an effect on real-world life outcomes, Shawn’s point about high school and those outcomes is also worth delving into. To paint with my partisan broad brush, Democrats only seem to be interested in spending more money, not reforming public education in meaningful ways. (Thanks, teachers’ unions!)
 
So, rather than improve the K-12 system, I think there is room to criticize this proposal as keeping the bad and just inflating the bar.
 
White House director Cecilia Muñoz told Politico that “Obama aims to make college ‘the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.'”
 
Depending on your partisan lens, this statement will be interpreted differently. I see this as what I alluded to earlier — education inflation rather than education reform.
 
Granted, we’re all wasting our time in a thought exercise because this has about the same chance of happening as anything in President Obama’s budgets. Budgets these days are a thought exercise in “how I’d like things to be, but obviously won’t be.”
 
This started the last two years of the Bush presidency, when Congress was controlled by Democrats. They became “Hope Documents” or “Wish Lists.” Even after Obama was elected, his budgets were never taken seriously by Congress because Congress was not serious about budgeting.
 
They quickly abandoned regular order and the normal appropriations process in favor of continuing resolutions and omnibus packages. A power grab by the leadership, disenfranchising moderate and oddball Democrats and castrating Republicans in the minority.
 
Presidential budgets have always been blueprints. Congress is under no obligation to consider them, but Presidents are still obligated by the law to churn them out. It used to make sense, but now it’s sort of a pointless partisan exercise.
 
Boehner tried to restore regular order when I went from the Senate to the House as a staffer. In that, he failed. McConnell has signaled he wants to try his hand at that, too.
 
I wish them luck and hope it succeeds, but I’m not optimistic.
Prospects for reforming K-12 education are equally dire, but then again, while I agree with conservatives on their reforms, I’m of the view that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in the first place on education, a position many conservatives share. Hard to argue that when you’re voting to essentially maintain some semblance of federal control over it, even if it is diminished.

 

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