Are High Community College Tuitions the Problem?

by Reihan Salam

President Obama has announced a new plan to make community college free for all students. Or, to put a slightly different spin on it, he’s calling for shifting the cost of community college from the students who attend them and their families to taxpayers. The president’s plan draws on the work of a number of Tennessee Republicans, including Tennessee governor Bill Haslam and its two senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. (I should note, however, that Sen. Alexander has distanced himself from the Obama administration proposal.) You will not be shocked to learn that the plan has already been widely praised. Cecilia Muñoz of the White House Domestic Policy Council tells David Leonhardt of the New York Times that “the president thinks this is a moment like when we decided to make high school universal,” and Leonhardt himself suggests that the impact of the plan could be “huge,” as “both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.” I agree that education policy is very important, but unfortunately Leonhardt’s analysis tells us very little about the merits of this particular proposal.

The College Board collects data on trends in college pricing, and Texas A&M economist Jonathan Meer kindly pointed me to their recent work on net prices — that is, net tuition and fees after grant aid — for students attending public institutions, including community colleges. It turns out that in 2011–12, “net tuition and fees at public two–year colleges ranged from $0 for students in the lower half of the income distribution to $2,051 for the highest-income group.” That is, net tuition and fees were $0 for students from households earning $60,000 or less while it was $2,051 for students from households earning over $106,000. While I don’t doubt that many households in the $106,000-plus range will welcome not having to pay for their children’s community college education, I’m hard-pressed to see why this initiative will have a “huge” impact, given that we’re presumably most concerned about improving community college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To be sure, including living expenses makes this picture look very different. Even if you’re not paying for tuition, you have to find some way to house, clothe, and feed yourself, and for many poor students, this means finding low-wage, part-time work. Juggling work and school can be challenging for many students, and this is doubtless a part of why college completion rates are so low. There are very smart, thoughtful people making the case for two years of free college, and they’re smart and thoughtful enough to know that tuition and fees are a relatively small part of the community college access story. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall have offered a provocative, thoughtful case for making the first two years of college free. But when they talk about making college free, they’re not just talking about tuition, as they understand that net tuition and fees are already quite low for low-income students. To them, making the first two years of college “free” means that “students will not face any costs for tuition, fees, books or supplies, and will receive a stipend and guaranteed employment at a living wage to cover their living expenses. Though I’m not quite willing to embrace Goldrick-Rab and Kendall’s approach, I’d certainly be more open to a well-designed guaranteed jobs program for poor college students that’s more ambitious than today’s lackluster work-study program than eliminating tuition for all. For one thing, my guess is that many students would learn more by working a steady job than they’d ever learn in school. But that doesn’t seem to be what the president is talking about. Rather, I believe he’s talking about … lowering net prices for students in the top half of the income distribution? This is the policy that’s going to have a “huge” impact? I’m sure I’m missing something, and I look forward to hearing from Andrew P. Kelly of AEI and others on the higher education beat over the next few days.

(Note that I’m totally neglecting the question of whether our community colleges are doing their jobs terribly well. For more on that, I highly recommend Anya Kamenetz’s $1 Trillion And Rising, an ambitious proposal for containing public higher education costs and boosting completion rates.)

UPDATE: This post has been revised to reflect that fact that Sen. Alexander’s objections to the president’s plan. 

The Corner

The one and only.