The Plan To Make Community College Free

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 9 2015 @ 11:16am

Obama wants the government to cover the first two years:

Suzy Khimm relays the basics:

To qualify for the program, “students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program,” the White House said. The administration estimates that the program would help about 9 million students, saving the average full-time student about $3,800 per year.

Leonhardt thinks it’s “worth acknowledging the potential impact of the plan — which is huge”:

Battles over health care, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention. But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy. Even if a federal program doesn’t pass, the growth of state and local programs — like Chicago’s and Tennessee’s — have a large economic effect.

Reihan isn’t so sure:

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.

Tim Worstall focuses on “the problem that perhaps some education is in fact just signalling”:

To give an example: back 40 years, just before my university going days, in my native UK some 10% of the population actually went to one. The US attendance rate was very much higher (it expanded well before the UK’s rate did). And in the US at that time it was usual that you must have a BA (or BSc) to get anywhere at all in a professional job of any kind. While an MA (or MSc) was considered to be the minimum to really mark you out as being in the top set academically. At that same time in the UK the simple BA still marked you out as being in that top set (and entry into most professions, including lawyer, accountant and so on, was still possible without a degree at all in anything). As UK university admittance has expanded we’re now much closer to that US model. A mere BA, when 30-40% of the age cohort has one, doesn’t mark you out as anything special. So, that top set go on to do a masters now. And there’s not much evidence that anyone knows any more than they did, or that productivity has increased as a result of the extra years of education. We seem just to be embroiled in a signalling race to no very good purpose.

Margaret Hartmann takes note that the “program would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, which has rejected three Obama proposals aimed at expanding community-college programs”:

And the GOP has already noted that it’s unclear how this program would be funded. The White House said the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost, and participating states would make up the rest. A source told Bloomberg News that the program would cost $5 billion, and experts suggested it could be more like tens of billions of dollars. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” said Cory Fritz, House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary.

Ed Morrissey sees the proposal as purely political:

This doesn’t have a prayer of getting passed in this Congress, and he knows it. It’s merely a construct to Show Obama Cares About You, while at the same time gives the media another Republicans Are Just Flint-Hearted Meanies narrative to push.

Sargent admits that Obama’s plan will “will run into a wall of GOP opposition.” But he thinks it raises another question:

How far can Obama go unilaterally to address the deep problems afflicting working and middle class Americans, such as stalled mobility and declining wages? Obama appears to be getting serious about testing the limits of his office on this front. But there is one area where unilateral action could perhaps have more of an impact on wages than any other: The coming battle over overtime pay.