Free Community College Tuition

Free Community College Tuition
(Credit: Franklin D. Ross/AP)

As an adjunct faculty member at a community college, I might be expect to welcome President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition-free. I don’t. This is another in a long line of great-sounding, ill-thought-out proposals emanating from the disconnected thinkers in Washington. It is a product of the psychological pathology that afflicts social engineers at every level of government. It springs from the idea that if the intentions behind a program are good, it must be worth doing, especially if it is “for the children.”

It is typical that there are no estimates of the cost of this program, other than that it will be in the “tens of billions of dollars,” but here are some quick thoughts about what we might see happen if this program comes to fruition.

  1. Several million ill-prepared high school graduates will go to college. Why not? It’s free, and it beats entering the real world. I can tell you right now that more students are going to community college than have any business being there. College is underpriced in the market right now, and this proposal will make it worse. Every semester I have several students who register for my classes, but drop out half way through the course. Apparently the loss of the tuition they have paid is not significant to them.
  1. Increasing the number of students in four-year colleges means that there will have to be more instructors. I may benefit by this increased demand, but it will also have an effect on the costs of instructor compensation, effects that President Obama does not seem to have taken into account.
  1. Some students now going to four-year colleges will elect to start their college careers at community colleges instead. Even the cheapest four-year college isn’t free, and as the “Car Talk” boys used to remind us, $0 is less than $5,000.
  1. As students move from four-year to two-year colleges, the number of instructors needed at the former will decline, with interesting results. One may be a shift of full-time professors from universities to adjunct status at community colleges. Possibly community colleges would make more of their faculty full-time, but that is dubious. So a full-time prof at the U of U who moves toSLCC would lose benefits.Or, it is possible that full professors from universities will displace full-time college instructors, bumping them to part-time status. No one can know what the results of this “cascade” will be, or where it will stop.
  1. Be ready for more meddling from Washington in local education decisions. Let me count (some of) the ways: For their students to qualify for free tuition, community colleges would have to “offer high-quality programs,” and to “commit to various steps to improve educational systems.”“High-quality programs” in whose opinion? “improve[d] educational systems in whose opinion? The educrats at the Department of Education? Washington has already demonstrated a total incapacity to make these kinds of judgments with No Child Left Behind for K-12 students, and its ham-handed meddling in the Common Core standards, not to mention even more convoluted social engineeering, such as ObamaCare.And let’s not forget that Washington remains irrevocably committed to the promise of programs like Head Start while impervious to the evidence that they are of no value. There is no reason to think that this new program will be subjected to any more rigorous analysis.
  1. Be ready for more mandated state funding. Early reports are that the states would be expected to pick up about one-quarter of the cost, but typically Washington sets a low buy-in figure, then eases itself out after the program has developed a constituency, leaving the states holding the bag.
  1. Expect more grade inflation and dumbing-down of college curricula, as “two years of college [becomes] the norm – the way high school is the norm.”
  1. And speaking of inflation, expect to see community college tuition increase. Making more money available to buy a particular product is a recipe for a price increase. Higher education is not immune to that law of economics. A large part of the tuition hikes we have seen in recent years can be attributed directly to the proliferation of state and federal grants and loans. No reason to expect this one to be any different.
  1. One place we will see this program produce a real-world education, and that is in how to game the system. Just as the current student loan program has been plagued from the beginning by those borrowing beyond their need and using the difference to finance investments and life-style, we will see bright young things figuring out ways to arrange their affairs to maximize their return and to avoid accountability. Other federal programs, from food stamps to disability insurance to the Earned Income Tax Credit have seen this pattern. Do not expect this one to be any different.

States are not immune to this kind of pie in the sky. This program is purportedly modeled on a Tennessee program. Of course the Tennessee program has not yet gone into effect, so we don’t have the results of this laboratory experience to guide us. It might be worth waiting a few years to see what happens in the Volunteer State before launching a national initiative.

States even more conservative than Tennessee can get carried away by enthusiasm for “doing something” about education. A couple of years ago, Utah’s own Governor Gary Herbert announced the goal of having two-thirds of Utah’s adults with a college degree by 2020. The one thing I can tell you about this goal is that it will not be met in any real way. This kind of top-down declaration cannot have an effect on individual students.

The only way to meet a goal of this kind is by debasing standards, and that is exactly what will happen under this new program of President Obama’s. It would be cheaper and less disruptive (and worth about as much) to award every child an Associate degree at birth.

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