Should Community College be free?
By Kimo Gandall
After President Obama’s State of the Union Speech, an important issue was brought afoot: should Community College be free? The purpose of free Community College is clear: (1) reduce income inequality in the education system, and (2) save money for the average American, both of which would hopefully help stimulate the economy in the long run.
Supporters of this initiative cite serious problems in the Community College system to advocate the need for this program. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, May 19, 2009, “A new analysis . . . challenges conventional assumptions about the affordability of community colleges . . . 80 percent of full-time community college students . . . did not get the aid they needed. That amounts to 2.2 million students, 250,000 more than attend private four-year colleges full time.” On average, the aid for these students fell short “by nearly $5,300 in 2007-08, 20 percent more than in 2003-04” ( Irons, Edie; May 13, 2009). In short, millions of students, especially those in the lower middle class and below, do not have the funds to afford college, and with a clear reduction in aid given since 2004, the issue is only getting worse. However, this problem is not only facing students. The American economy is what is truly at risk.
When average Americans cannot pay their bills, someone must collect them. When average Americans lose their assets because the very institution that taught them how to survive has bankrupted them, we face serious problems. In the end, a reduction in American purchasing power results in a reduction of economic activity, a severity to us all. The statistics of the problem only darken the entire situation, for “between 25% and 40% of borrowers [report] postponing homes, cars and other major purchases…” due to education expenses. Well over half of these borrowers also claim that “their student loans are increasing their risk of defaulting on other bills.” Even worse, “Strikingly, 45% of graduates age 24 and under are living back at home” (Wall Street Journal; January 27 2015). Most of these people are prevented from playing an active role in the housing market because our schools prevent them from doing so. The effects on the market are shocking as from just the 3-year-period of 2010 to 2013 the percentage of new business creation among people under 30 has shrunk from 3.6% to 6.1% (Mitchell E. Daniels, 2015). The cause of this phenomenon is the lack of necessary aid for the common student, as 26% of students who graduate debt free form at least 1 business, but students who graduate with debt only form businesses 16% of the time. The effect of this on the American market could be lethal as America becomes one giant corporate entity. (Mitchell E. Daniels, 2015).
Unfortunately, the dream of free college lacks any basis in reality, for America’s most infamous device clogs the system: bureaucracy. Let’s look at California, a state that supposedly has the least expensive 2-year tuition, being as low as $1,100 annually (New York Times, 2015). Currently, there is “a list of 470,000 students waiting for admission,” and “1,000-to-1 student to counselor” ratio, common in most community colleges (The Washington Times, 26 January 2015). And that’s the current system. With the president’s proposal, College administrators predict that this number will go up by 15% at least, creating over 70,500 new applicants; a number that only makes getting into any college a lot more difficult (LA Times, 2015). Essentially, for you, as an average American, free college only results in to harder to enter college. This “free college utopian dream” has no foundation, as the very system it is based upon will be unable to handle it.
While most of us see education as the panacea of our nation’s problems, the short term costs of the plan might as well sink our budget before the solution can even hit shore. The program itself will cost 80 billion to the government over the next decade with 20 billion hitting the state governments (Brian Hughes; January 9, 2015). While any of us would be on board such a cost if it had significant widespread effects, it won’t. The problem, is not tuition costs; no, it is a much larger evil: living costs. Total living costs, such as food, book prices, transportation and housing, rack up to $16,000 annually at the average Community College, while the annual average for tuition is only one-fifth of this price (Brookings Institute 2015). In effect, the President’s plan would not primarily benefit the lower class, the ones whom cannot already pay for the living costs, but the upper class, who CAN pay for these living costs, and simply take free college as one contribution to give to the system.
Community College isn’t even a flaw-free system in terms of graduation. The average graduation rates are startlingly low with rates at nearly 66% to 80%, which means at best, 14,500 of those 70,500 thrown into the system won’t even graduate, dropping out of the system and costing the taxpayer all at once (Grand Forks Herald, January 25, 2015). The influx of students, in fact, will likely make the system EVEN worse, as the President’s plan only provides free tuition, not the tools to properly educate these students. These colleges, competing for every cent of Federal subsidies, would be forced to “prove that [their] college has higher enrollments for students that qualify for [Federal subsidies]. This is where academic rigor could really take a hit. Lowering entrance standards… [is the] way to further increase the number of students that qualify for enrollment” ( The Federalist, January 23 2015). Remember President Obama’s “those who are willing to work for it” chant? It’s all an illusion under Free Community College, because the plan would actually decrease the effort to get in. If it’s not your money, why work for it?
What America needs to do is not expend needless resources on adults who already face a significant educational handicap by the age of 18, but to focus on those whom can be saved: the children. According to Professor Durlauf, an economics specialist at UW-Madison, “ Children of disadvantaged families suffer very substantial skills handicaps by age 18…” and “unlike the [actual advantages] of community college tuition, evidence on the skills gap [in K-12 school] is strong.” In his study, the Professor explains that “the rates of return to early childhood investment are very high,” much more effective than those investments placed in institutions focused on older individuals due to the “limits to remediation that may be achieved in college”. Benefits of past investments have been clear, with research suggesting that for every $1 spent on children in K-12 grade, society benefits roughly $8.60 through decreases in crime, and increases in productivity, which in the long term translate to nearly 0.44% increase in the Nation’s GDP (White House, December 10, 2014). On the other hand, free Community College, such as that found in Chicago, reaps none of these benefits.
Nevertheless, contenders for free Community College continue to rant about the job benefits college provides that is impossible to find in K-12 grade. There are two problems with this claim: (1). Community College, specifically technology Colleges not offer significant benefits to students or society in comparison to costs, and (2) most large companies are simply outsourcing anyway.
To begin, let’s talk about the lack of benefits seen in technology Colleges. Supporters claim that Community Colleges can decrease the ‘skill gap’, which is the difference between the skills required for a job, and the skills actually possessed by employees, that the United States currently faces. However, most of these Colleges simply “exaggerate the value of their degree programs, selling young people on dreams of middle-class wages while setting them up for default on untenable debts, low-wage work and a struggle to avoid poverty” with tuition costs of $30,000 (Peter S. Goodman, 13 Mar. 2010), which not only gives little actual job application, but robs the taxpayer of precious public funds. Evidence also points towards little demand on the market for these jobs, with unemployment in 2007 actually higher for advanced degree students than today, specifically 1.5% higher. Essentially, workers before the recession actually have lower unemployment because there was less labor inflation on the market; less potential human resources meant more demand. It’s basic economics.
Once again, if such higher levels of unemployment were related because of skill shortages or lack of demands, there would be sectors with fluctuating labor demand; ex. banking would have 1.4% unemployment, and computer technology would have 10% unemployment, none of which the data portrays. According to the Economic Policy Institute “unemployed workers dramatically outnumber job openings in all sectors. There are between 1.4 and 10.5 times as many unemployed workers as job openings in every industry”. Clearly, there simply isn’t enough demand on the market to justify investing more in Community Colleges if the jobs required for degrees simply aren’t there.
There is a large reason for this lack of demand, which is largely accompanying the problem of outsourcing. The question is simple: why pay an American employee 20 dollars an hour if you can pay a worker in India 5 dollars an hour? With over 63% of companies reporting on planning outsourcing jobs with high educational values (Business News Daily. 22 March 2013), there seems little hope in a greater demand arising for these jobs; but with more and more students surging into these jobs, we’re going to see the Grapes of Wrath syndrome everywhere: too many workers, for too few jobs. So in reality, free Community College isn’t going to ‘help the average American’; it’s going to simple give the illusion of a first class job whilst bankrupting them.
Adherents of the free school doctrine have larger plans, though. One infamous claim is the “online class” proposal that essentially outlines a proposition for a large majority of these 70,500 students (if not more) to take college online to avoid the burdensomeness of the College bureaucracy. The problem with this scheme is simple: completion rates of this class are nearly zip. Across the country, there is only a 4% average of completion across all subjects for online courses, “ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion” (University of Pennsylvania, 5 December 2013). Proponents of this claim simply lack any realistic perception of our society.
Helping the people of America is not bad. But it we want to use our valuable tax dollars to help Americans, free Community college is simply not the right way to go.