On January 9th, President Barack Obama presented, in person, something intriguing. He proposed that all American community college students enrolled in 2-year associate’s degree programs maintaining at least 2.5 grade point averages receive free tuition and fees.
I have a lot to say about this, and my background on it comes from both sides. In the past decade I taught at two community colleges, Seminole and Valencia near Orlando. I was always impressed by my students, who were often not only working full-time but raising children, sometimes even as single parents, yet managed to get to class and to do their work well. I have long thought two-year schools to be fine places to start higher education, with not only lower rates but settings facilitating marginal students easing into college, and when associate’s degree recipients transfer to and graduate from four-year schools their diplomas look the same as those who attended the whole time.
In contrast, though, I have been reactionary about school as an unemployment solution. In the Work’s New Age book I called education and training “one applicant over another,” and tagged Obama for saying that more such expenditures were necessary to reduce joblessness. When the problem is that the number of applicants is burying the number of available positions, formal learning programs will only affect who gets hired, not whether anyone will. Community colleges, which generally prepared people for entry-level jobs already in excessive demand, were no better than four-year schools benefiting inordinately from their long-false reputation of assuring entry into the middle class.
So what can I say about Obama’s free-tuition proposal?
First, the positive things. Free community college tuition would reduce the amount students owe for education, which soared over $1 trillion several years ago and might be the next bubble to burst, as much of that will never be repaid. It will steer more people into community colleges who should be going there anyway, the marginal students statistically unlikely to get degrees and those lacking in family money. It will encourage states, such as Wisconsin, where almost all go to four-year schools right away, to save money by implementing and expanding two-year institutions.
Next, the plan’s disadvantages. As above, it could perpetuate the illusion of colleges automatically conferring middle-class status, which they have not done successfully for decades. If it turns out overly easy to maintain a required grade point average, and controls on ensuring students are making steady, even if slow, progress toward graduation prove to be weak, the proposal may allow people to consume educational resources indefinitely. The idea should not be seen as a first step toward free tuition at 4-year institutions, which would not be viable without admission requirements tougher than Americans would accept.
Beyond the good and bad points, the free tuition plan would have effects hard to predict. It would put the first two years of post-secondary schooling in the same category as elementary and high school, available publicly at no charge but with more expensive alternatives also possible. It would become the default for high school graduates, to an even greater extent than college is now. It would shrink the sizes and change the missions of lower-tier four-year schools. It could either raise or lower community college completion rates, depending on whether students become more likely to enter degree programs, whether those struggling but not clearly wanting to leave decide to complete their 2-year degrees in the name of finishing successfully, or if more choose just to drop out and leave that phase, free tuition and all, behind, with no further obligations.
The fascinating question is whether free community college would help improve mobility, or only entrench financial inequality. It would certainly help some poor but smart and motivated students to pull themselves up, by providing education they might not be able to get otherwise. It would also, though, solidify a three-tiered (or more) system, in which after high school people go to community colleges, the stronger four-year state schools and the like, or Ivy League or other elite private universities, resulting in tightly circumscribed work opportunities for each. Although inequality as such is overrated as a problem in itself, it would be a shame for a country long called “the land of opportunity” to have career outcomes more predetermined than the descendants of the old European monarchies.
Overall, though, the strengths and weaknesses of free community college are irrelevant. Although it is based on an originally Republican idea, Congress will not pass it into law. Many will agree with the Wall Street Journal’s view that it would be “just another federal entitlement,” and, right or wrong, that will be the end of it. Whether that will be a good or bad thing is for you to decide.