President Obama  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama last month unveiled a plan to offer free community college tuition to students who meet specific criteria in what this Washington Post story called “one of his most ambitious, expensive and likely controversial initiatives for the coming year. The cost estimate, the White House said, would be around $60 billion over 10 years, most of it paid by the federal government but some by states. While there are huge questions about whether the Republican-led Congress would approve the plan and appropriate money towards it, the proposal has generated a great deal of debate nationally.

In the following post, the authors critique the plan and offer what they think is a far better use of public money. It was written by  Carolyn P. Ash, education consultant on diversity, equity and access issues in education and managing director of Ash Consulting Group;  Alan A. Aja, assistant professor and deputy chair in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latin Studies at Brooklyn College;  William Darity, Jr.,  Samuel Du Bois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University; and  Darrick Hamilton, associate professor of economics and urban policy at Milano, the New School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy.

 

By Carolyn P. Ash, Alan A. Aja, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton

Leading up to his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama unveiled in Knoxville, Tennessee a proposal to offer all qualifying Americans a two-year, tuition-free community college education. During his remarks, the president argued that the plan would strengthen the U.S. workforce and make it more globally competitive. His plan also would enable higher education to be more accessible “to responsible students who are willing to work for it.”

Notwithstanding the implicit premise that community college students are not as motivated as others in the first place, a White House spokesperson estimated a price tag of $60 billion over 10 years with three quarters of the program financed by the federal government and the remaining quarter by participating state governments. However, a better way to spend that $60 billion  would be to expand the existing federal Pell Grant program and empower students with greater resources to choose the college best for them.

The maximum amount of a Pell Grant award today is just under $6,000 a year. Average community college tuition is approximately $4,000, not including the cost of additional fees, books, transportation, food, child care (if applicable) and other expenditures. The president’s proposed “America’s College Promise” is of no added value to our least privileged students. They are already eligible for free tuition at community colleges via the current Pell Grant program. Thus the president’s plan would primarily subsidize the community college tuition of more well-off students.

In the absence of a more universal approach, such as a comprehensive tuition-free community and four-year college system, the current effort restricts students’ options. Why design a funding system that explicitly subsidizes one segment of higher education at the expense of another? Instead of a paternalistic proposal, we need a college access plan that allows students to choose the institution that best meets their needs and goals. An even greater investment in the Pell Grant program, from increased funding to account for increasing levels of wealth and income inequality and expanded eligibility, would provide all students with better access to community colleges and better access to non-profit four-year colleges as well.

Understandably, a number of higher education leaders have expressed concern about the very possible reverse migration from four-year institutions that could subvert “America’s College Promise.” Southern University system board member Tony Clayton, for example, worries that President Obama’s plan “would funnel students who might otherwise go to HBCUs instead to community colleges.” There is also concern that the very act of resource-diversion is a concerted attempt to underfund and further privatize four-year public colleges, undermining the quality and likelihood of all students receiving a well-rounded education.

The president’s free community college tuition plan is also troublesome at the rhetorical and philosophical levels. His assertion in Knoxville that “a college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class” and the “key to getting a good job that pays a good income” does not match the reality for millions of Americans.

Among recent college graduates, the jobless rate for blacks in 2013 was more than double that for whites. Equally striking, “the unemployment rate in 2013 was lower among whites who never finished high school (9.7 percent) than it was for blacks with some college education (10.5 percent).” Janelle Jones and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research also found similar disparities examining the labor market experiences of recent black college graduates, pointing to a combination of the recent economic downturn and persistent racial discrimination in the labor market as contributing mechanisms. They write that while a college degree “blunts” the impact of these effects relative to blacks without one, “college is not a guarantee against either of these forces.”

If President Obama’s goal serves to increase equitable access to higher education, then a concerted effort to universalize tuition-free models for community and non-profit four-year institutions alike, while expanding funding opportunities for HBCUs, would be in order. But that proposal is not on the table.

Let’s make an even greater investment in the Pell Grant program, which would provide low-income students with better access to both community colleges and non-profit four-year institutions. And let’s eradicate labor market inequalities that reward white high school dropouts with greater access to jobs than black graduates with a community college degree.