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
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
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
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
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
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.