Some Thoughts on Free Community College

I was sitting with my Better Half when there was an online article about President Obama’s recently announced plan for free community college tuition.  As we read the article and then followed up with other sites, the commentary flowed.  On the one hand, it can be trolled as yet another spending program with dubious results but there are some other aspects to consider.

Our conversation was framed by a discussion earlier at dinner with one of Middle’s friends, who is presently a college junior at a state university.  As he explained his course load, he commented that the very first Gen Ed class that he took on Day One was a math course, which started with the concept of counting.  Both of us looked at him and my wife stopped and asked for clarification and he confirmed that it started with simple counting before moving on to more complex topics such as addition.  This was on top of stories from others of his contemporaries, which led us to the conclusion that much of the early college course load is simply remedial and if this is indeed the case, then there is actually some value in the President’s proposal.

But before that, what is the core of the proposal? When you read the brief articles – and yes, the devil is in the details – there are requirements of all parties involved for this to work.  First, the students – those who are eligible and I smell income requirements in the air – are required to maintain a GPA of 2.5 and must be in school for at least half-time.  They must also show continuing progress towards their program goal, whatever that may be.  For their own part, the community colleges will have to offer programs that are either fully transferrable to a local four-year public university or occupational training programs for which there is high demand (and oh yeah, actual job opportunities).  The government part of the deal is that the Federal Government will put up three-quarters of the money and the states will put up the other quarter of the funding; in the ideal theoretical world, the student would be able to save $3800 in tuition each year.

Now let’s pick this apart as we did on the sofa.  The reality facing America is that our students, as a whole, are performing poorly versus their peers across the globe.  Our students are behind in science and math, critical in today’s technological society.  But look at the cost differential of the same type of course taught at both the community college and local state university.  A basic three credit Math 100 course at my local community college (and I’ve verified the numbers via the respective tuition website pages) would cost a student $458 while a basic three credit Math 100 course at the local state university would cost $792, a differential of $334.  Since these basic courses would be generally identical in scope, it makes no sense on a societal level to duplicate the courses with some students paying the higher amount and effectively wasting the resources.  This is clearly an effort to bring about some relief to the issue of student debt, which now is in excess of $1.2 Trillion, more than the amount of outstanding credit card debt.  It is also a concrete effort to combat the several decade mantra that the college route is the route to take after high school; it’s a mantra that has now sucked in enough people to swell the rolls of student debt holders to more than 40 million young adults.  The inclusion of the word local is also meaningful to students.  Part of the message sold over the past several decades is loosely reminiscent of Bluto Blutarsky’s infamous line from the movie Animal House: …the best seven years of my life.  The community college proposal is squarely saying that a quality higher education doesn’t have to include the now-expected time away from home.  I understand that there are plenty of young people who crave that – God knows that I did – but that was a different time with a different set of circumstances.  With the job market being what it is in terms of wages, would you rather live away from home now and take on debt or clear your decks now and then proceed with your life?

There are other points to make here.  It’s a message to community colleges that they need to take greater care in offering programs that are indeed timely and of value.  As costs drive more away from any higher education, the message is that the money will be there for students if there are programs that make sense; so cull away the nonsense and put together curricula that meets society’s demands.  It also sends a message that there has to be a greater effort by both the community colleges and four year institutions to mesh what’s offered so that money isn’t wasted on credits that won’t transfer to the four year university.  There have been several instances in which I’ve been told by someone that their kid or neighbor’s kid won’t have credits transferred, meaning that the resources are wasted.  Multiply this across – at least – several hundred thousand students and that’s considerable money simply down the tubes.  There’s likewise a message to the four year institutions that perhaps there are other options to the public and that in a period of declining resources, they’re best served putting the money into that which truly does train, educate and enlighten.

Since I began this article two days ago, other information about the proposed cost has been issued by the administration, assuming that you actually believe them.  According to the Press Secretary, the President’s program would cost about $60 Billion over the course of a decade…so call it roughly $6 Billion annually.  The knives will come out and it’s going to be decried as budget-busting, although the concept that an outlay of $6 Billion – nah, since we’re all of going on $20 Trillion in debt, let’s use the lower case and call it billions – is actually laughable in the greater scheme of things.  There’s actually the argument that this type of spending would actually be an investment.  According to the Federal Education Budget Project, produced by the New America Foundation, the collective student default rate for federal student loans as of 2011 was approximately 18%.  Yes, this is 2011 data but let’s apply this default rate to the 2014 student loans issued in the amount of almost $100 billion; this is a default of approximately $18 billion.  The same article from FEBP shows that the net recovery of defaulted money is approximately 80% for a net loss of $3.6 billion.  The net differential on the $6 billion average annual outlay is a loss of $2.4 billion.  The important thing is that as the system begins to change over time, the defaults should lessen and the money begin to flow to where it’s most effective.  This doesn’t even address the psychic and emotional toll on young adults who are stuck with a debt albatross around their neck as they start out in their adult life, nor does it address the delayed creation of households, which is actually important for the national economic health.

There’s one other point from both our conversation and a review of the information.  There’s a collective failure when the colleges – community and four-year – are forced to offer such utterly ridiculous course offerings as taken by Middle’s friend.  This information is certainly offered by at the secondary – hell, even the primary – level and it’s a complete failure that the information isn’t being collectively learned.  And that’s on us.

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