The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 12 2015 @ 7:51pm

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel cautions that Obama’s proposal still falls short for many would-be students:

Free tuition, even for two years, is not nearly enough to cover the cost of attending college. Tuition and fees counted for just 21 percent of the budget for students who attend two-year public college and pay for off-campus housing, according to a recent study from College Board. While the average tuition and fees at a community college is $3,347 for the 2014-2015 academic year, housing cost another $7,705, books averaged $1,328 and transportation added up to $1,735. Keep in mind, too, that Obama’s plan also doesn’t cover fees, which schools routinely charge for using labs, campus health centers and computer labs.

Libby Nelson addresses such concerns:

[Obama’s plan] would apply before Pell Grants. That means that poor students would have more Pell Grant money left over to help them pay for books and other life expenses. But Obama’s college plan would also help a constituency largely ignored by federal aid programs: families who earn too much for federal financial aid but aren’t wealthy enough to afford thousands of dollars of college bills.

Douglas-Gabriel acknowledges the Pell Grant factor but finds that “many students could still wind up working full time or taking out loans, albeit smaller amounts, to pay the difference.” Mike Konczal’s take:

Everyone—poor and middle class—would benefit from college cost control. Indeed this addresses one of the main conservatives complaints about student aid.

If the supply of education is hard to move, then subsidizing education through aid will raise the price of education, as colleges capture some of that as a subsidy. Worse, it also increases costs for students who don’t receive the subsidy, resulting in price inflation.

Fair enough. But if that’s true, then it must also be true that lowering the price of tuition directly with a public option will reduce prices across the board. Suddenly state and private colleges will have to consider if they offer enough value to make their price over community colleges a reasonable value. This is what the economist JW Mason refers to as progressive supply-side economics, and it’s part of the reason public options are so valuable. There’s a reason the CBO keeps scoring the public option as a major cost saver in healthcare. It’s not just the lower price of the public option; it’s that a public option “would tend to increase the competitive pressure on [other] insurers” in the exchanges, leading them ”to lower their premiums, which would further reduce federal subsidies.” This won’t break the back of rising higher-education costs, but it will help.

Scott Shackford, on the other hand, is deeply critical of Obama’s plan:

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.

Even in an era of grade inflation, though, community colleges also have terrible completion rates for students seeking two-year degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a handy map showing completion rates lower than 10 percent in states like Indiana and Rhode Island after three years of attendance. The best state, South Dakota, has a 52.9 percent completion rate. For-profit colleges [like Bryman College], for all their criticism for taking advantage of students (and federal subsidies), have a higher graduation rate than community colleges. … If a student falls into the extremely high drop-out rate for students, the government (and the taxpayers) don’t get the money back. So the White House is promoting a program funded by taxpayers to subsidize—wait, I mean further subsidize—a system that has baked in an extremely high failure rate.

But again, this program is not a subsidy for students. It’s a subsidy for faculty and college level administrative bloat.

And Andrew Flowers shows how such colleges are in more need now than in recent years:

As my colleague Ben Casselman pointed out in April, college enrollment is declining for recent high school graduates (those 16 to 24 years old). And it’s falling fastest for community colleges. This drop comes after a surge in enrollment during the Great Recession. For those graduating high school between 2007 and 2009, the share enrolled at two-year colleges rose to 27.7 percent from 24.1 percent. After reaching a high with the 2012 graduating class, the share of these young people at two-year colleges dropped sharply in 2013, to 23.8 percent. …

With better employment opportunities available for high school graduates, community colleges might just need the incentive of free tuition to lure more students.

Follow the entire Dish debate on the topic here.