How Would Obama’s Free College Plan Work? Would It Work?

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Even before his State of the Union speech, President Obama was continuing to push an ambitious post-election agenda. Among his proposals is a plan to make two years of community college free for all high school graduates –- assuming that a student is able to attend on at least a half-time basis, make continual progress toward a degree and maintain a grade point average of 2.5.

In essence, Obama’s plan makes a community college a two-year extension of high school, with the goal of students either transferring to four-year colleges or graduating with sufficient job training that employers are currently seeking.

“America’s College Promise” is based in part on the “Tennessee Promise,” a similar program aimed at Tennessee high school graduates. The national program also operates through the states, but the federal government provides 75 percent of the funding, with the states providing the rest. (Tennessee’s is funded through state lottery money.)

Obama has made the point that a high-school diploma is not sufficient to acquire a better-paying job anymore, and that free community college can bridge the current skills gap between high school graduates and employers. Critics point out that a four-year degree does not guarantee success either, and that free community college is not the best use of taxpayer dollars. Let’s look at a few of the important concerns about the president’s plan.

Funding. The estimated price tag is $60 billion over 10 years. Realistically, this must be mostly taxpayer-funded, and that may be a hard sell even with a rebounding economy. Certainly, it will be a challenge to get this past a Republican Congress. States are probably not too thrilled about another federal program adding to their costs even though the federal government is picking up most of the initial bill. Remember how Medicaid expansion worked out?
Educational mismatch. If designed correctly, these programs should help fill a gap in mid-range skills that threatens to hold back the economy. However, success requires that schools incorporate the mentoring aspects of the Tennessee program and that programs are designed to meet the needs of the job market. Otherwise, the program just adds to the number of overeducated baristas.
Fairness. Currently, the program is blind with respect to affordability. Whether it should be is a point for spirited debate. One assumes poorer students would take advantage, but surely, students who are more affluent would as well. Arguably, this is one of those rare programs where the middle-class would benefit most. Pell Grants and other mechanisms exist to help the poorest students and richer students are likely to opt for four-year institutions. Some argue that it is a waste of resources to subsidize affluent students — unless, as The Atlantic conjectured in a recent article, your goal is to integrate America’s community colleges socioeconomically.
Responsibility. Are students going to make the most of a free opportunity, compared to the motivation driven by having paid for their education (the so-called “skin in the game”)? Of course, the same could be said for scholarships.

It is hard to see this program passing through a Republican Congress in the short term. Even though it is modeled after a state Republican program, Republicans are unlikely to embrace it. Remember, Obamacare was modeled after Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts program, and that didn’t win any Republican favors.

In the long term, the free community college program may be viable but it would probably have to be driven by businesses insisting that such a program would help them find qualified American employees for unfilled jobs – and good jobs would have to follow.

Success is more likely to take place through state initiatives, similar to Tennessee’s program, until a critical mass is reached to convince Congress to provide federal support. But let’s give Obama credit for the proposal and planting the seed to take such programs nationwide.


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