Is Universally Free Community College a Good Idea?

 

President Obama has just proposed that two years of community college be free for all Americans “willing to work for it.”  Forty percent, or about nine million, of today’s college students are enrolled at one of America’s more than 1100 community colleges which have an average annual tuition of $3800.  First estimates are that such a program would cost about $6 billion per year when fully implemented. The advantages of such a program are:
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  • The biggest advantage is to greatly increase college enrollments especially for the low-income, minority and first generation college students who typically attend community colleges.
  • It will make a contribution toward solving the college affordability issue. With tuition averaging $9,139 at public four-year colleges and universities and $31,231 at private institutions, students unsure of their future plans can start out with much lower expenses before deciding if they really want a four year degree. Equally important, it will put pressure on four-year institutions to do a better job of controlling their costs and focusing more strongly on what they do best.
  • Finally, such a plan will put great pressure on expensive for-profit educational institutions, whose primary source of income is from federal student loans, to demonstrate much more clearly their true educational value. Community colleges are likely to expand their course offerings under a big influx of new students and expand into specialized practical subjects where the for-profit institutions now have a virtual monopoly.

There is, of course, one nitty-gritty little thing to be concerned about with such an ambitious new education program.  How is it going to be paid for in our current era of high federal deficits and exploding debt?
I think there are two ways to approach this question.  First of all, the federal education budget is quite large, $141 billion for FY 2014.  We should be able to trim other education programs in order to pay for this new initiative.  This kind of budget discipline, which is absolutely necessary, might require cutting back the President’s proposal in order to reduce its cost.  This is quite appropriate.
There will always be good ideas for new programs which could prove to be quite valuable.  But they will need to be implemented very efficiently!

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