Obama’s Free Tuition Plan Is a Subsidy for Colleges, Not Students

Your tax dollars at work.

“Community”California has a very cheap community college program. Annual tuition can cost less than $1,500 a year. According to this college calculation service, you’re likely to spend more on books than you will on your classes.

California also has a problem in that its community college system already cannot accommodate all the students who want to attend. In 2012, California reported having 470,000 students on waiting lists. The inability to provide classes for students was blamed on budget cuts, of course, not on its economic model. They did raise tuition rates, though, from $20 a unit to $46 a unit.

You cannot look at California’s community college system and conclude that subjecting all community college students even further to the vicissitudes of government spending commitments is a good idea. Yet, this is exactly what President Barack Obama is proposing. Obama’s “America’s College Promise” proposal, reported yesterday and formally introduced today, would provide “free”—as in subsidized by federal and state governments—community college educations. Here’s how the White House says it will work:

Enhancing Student Responsibility and Cutting the Cost of College for All Americans: Students who attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program will have their tuition eliminated. These students will be able to earn half of the academic credit they need for a four-year degree or earn a certificate or two-year degree to prepare them for a good job.

Building High-Quality Community Colleges: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that either (1) are academic programs that fully transfer to local public four-year colleges and universities, giving students a chance to earn half of the credit they need for a four-year degree, or (2) are occupational training programs with high graduation rates and that lead to degrees and certificates that are in demand among employers.  Other types of programs will not be eligible for free tuition.  Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes, such as the effective Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) programs at the City University of New York which waive tuition, help students pay for books and transit costs, and provide academic advising and supportive scheduling programs to better meet the needs of participating students, resulting in greater gains in college persistence and degree completion.

Ensuring Shared Responsibility with States: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. States that choose to participate will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate community college tuition for eligible students. States that already invest more and charge students less can make smaller contributions, though all participating states will be required to put up some matching funds. States must also commit to continue existing investments in higher education; coordinate high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to reduce the need for remediation and repeated courses; and allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone. States will have flexibility to use some resources to expand quality community college offerings, improve affordability at four-year public universities, and improve college readiness, through outreach and early intervention.

So right off the bat I see a huge incentive for further grade inflation for community colleges. Remember, of course, the free money getting tossed around is going to college faculty and administrators, not to students. It’s not the students being subsidized, it’s the college. So they’re going to do everything in their power to keep these students attending, even if it results in students leaving college with associate’s degrees they can barely read, which will subsequently devalue the degrees in the eyes of employers.

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