The Future of American Higher Education


President Obama’s proposal, to make community college free of cost for all Americans, is generating a lot of controversy.  Major complaints are that:

  • The projected cost of $6 billion per year is too high and the program is highly duplicative with other scholarship programs such as Pell grants.
  • Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, not federal.
  • The graduation rate at community colleges is only 21%, much lower than at other types of educational institutions.
  • There is a whole new marketplace of non-degree credentials such as competency-based programs and micro-certifications which often provide greater variety, quality and monetary value than community college programs.

These criticisms are largely valid and should largely be incorporated into the guidelines of the President’s proposal as they are drawn up and submitted to Congress.
CaptureBut they miss the larger point.  Today, about 30% of young people in the U.S. graduate from a four year college.  Tuition and fees at public college averages $9,000 per year while the comparable cost at private colleges is $31,000.  Loan debt for college graduates averages $27,000 per year, and is much higher for many.  And, according to the above chart from the New York Times, educational attainment in the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world.
Today’s increasingly high-tech and interconnected world puts a huge premium on educational attainment and America’s system of higher education is not meeting the challenge.  It is too expensive and not educating enough people, especially minorities and those with low-incomes.
The best way to address this problem in a cost-efficient manner, which is a necessity in today’s fiscal climate, is to expand opportunities at our 1100 community colleges. Community colleges are not only incredibly low cost operations, they accept all students and start them out at whatever academic level is necessary.  They provide the ideal venue to lift up large numbers of average and previously-failed students and turn them into productive members of society.  Boosting community college enrollments will, in turn, give our economy a big boost.
This is the real reason why President Obama’s free tuition plan should be taken seriously.  It will shine a strong light on an educational sector whose potential is greatly under-appreciated by many Americans.

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:

  • 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!