The logic behind the “free” community-college program President Obama announced last week is understandable. A high-school education once put many well-paying jobs within reach of Americans. Today, post-high-school work is increasingly necessary. So President Obama has proposed that two years of community college be free for students in most programs, accompanied by more oversight and accountability from Washington.
The problems begin where they did with efforts to improve elementary and secondary education from Washington: Why is a locally provided good the concern of the federal government? And since when was America’s K–12 educational system, let alone the federal government’s attempts to improve it, a model anyone was eager to emulate?
Tuition at community colleges for poor students is already low or nonexistent, making the president’s plan more a transfer program to state governments and middle-class consumers than anything else. A universal free approach to community college would replace a great deal of need-based aid, which would have the merit of eliminating the implicit tax such aid creates for the working poor. And the cost of attending community college does go far beyond tuition — it’s expensive to reduce or forgo work.
But the main problem at community colleges is not cost, or work disincentives, but the appallingly low rates at which their students finish with a useful credential. President Obama’s plan is not going to fix this.
The plan, like decades of federal policy for elementary and secondary schools, proposes to link funding to a push for accountability and best practices at community colleges. Yet we expect this to work as well as it has in the past: It’s no better an idea to try to run Bunker Hill Community College from Washington than it was to try to run Peoria High the same way.
President Obama announced his plan in Tennessee, where Republican governor Bill Haslam has overseen a program providing the same two free years at the state’s community colleges. But Haslam’s program already has a performance-based funding scheme. Such a system never works all that well, and Haslam’s plan has other problems too. But by funding 75 percent of his proposal at the federal level, President Obama would undermine the incentives state governments have to spend money wisely and try to replace them with federal oversight.
There are simpler ways to impose accountability on community colleges than the inevitable web of federal regulations: Force them to provide transparent data to consumers, and consider requiring them to have skin in the game, taking a share of the risk that students won’t graduate and will default on their loans.
Furthermore, the president’s proposal would hugely benefit one segment of a dysfunctional market, public community colleges — it’s hard to compete with free. For-profit and nonprofit two-year institutions have not been spectacularly successful, but they have managed to fill some demand for professionally useful certificates and degrees. All segments of the market could do a better job if federal aid were made simpler (without being made vastly more generous) and regulations on schools were rolled back. Some of the more successful community-college initiatives across the country have involved closer cooperation with local employers, to suit their needs. The secretary of education doesn’t have much to add to that conversation.
Many of the worries about a market-driven approach to four-year higher education simply don’t register at the community-college level: Their mostly nontraditional student bodies are looking for career advancement more than intellectual enrichment. The fundamental barriers to entry, besides those imposed by the government, are lower. There’s no reason, in fact, that conservatives at the state and federal levels shouldn’t be responding to the woes of our community colleges with their own approach.
The president’s announcement didn’t even come with a gesture toward how the costs, which will run into the billions per year, would be paid for. That, coupled with the plan’s intrinsic flaws, reflects the growing exhaustion of Obama’s agenda. However important a college degree has become, another middle-class entitlement is not the way to provide it.