“TODAY I’M announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of community college tuition in this country,” President Obama said in Tennessee on Friday. “I want to bring it down to zero. I want to make it free.”
Ambitious, yes. Wise, no.
In the effort to address income inequality and promote American competitiveness, investing in education is a smart long-term strategy. But not every investment is as worthy as any other. Some initiatives sound nice but fail to carefully target precious national wealth to those most in need. Mr. Obama’s is one of those ideas.
Here’s how it would work: The federal government would spend some $60 billion over 10 years in a cost-sharing partnership with the states, with the goal of covering community college tuition bills. The feds would pick up 75 percent of the tab, and the states would chip in the rest. The White House figures the program would save roughly 9 million students an average of $3,800 in tuition each year.
Students would have to maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average and attend school at least half-time. They would also have to enroll in programs that meet certain quality benchmarks. Credits would have to be transferrable to a full, four-year college or result in a two-year professional certification. Courses of study could be judged on graduation rates and their success at placing students in four-year programs or in jobs. The tuition assistance would stack on top of Pell Grant awards, which offer cash to the neediest students, so students could use Pell to cover books, transportation and other education-related expenses.
But under Mr. Obama’s plan, taxpayers would pay even for those who could pay for themselves. If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers? Further increasing the size of Pell Grants, for example, would be a more progressive way to help very needy students. Larger Pell Grants would also be usable at four-year colleges and universities, which could give some poor students a better chance at success, and not just at community colleges. The government should at least make Pell Grants available year-round, so that students could study over the summer, rather than just during the school year. These are all higher priorities.
If the president wants to help those who earn just too much to qualify for Pell Grants, he could consider means testing community college tuition assistance some other way. The White House, however, hasn’t gamed out how means testing would affect the proposal, in part, apparently, for philosophical reasons. “The president believes that it is time to make college education the norm, and that about 100 years ago this country decided that high school would be the norm and that now is the time to make sure that all Americans, regardless of age, have access to higher education,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday. That’s a fine goal. But in an era of constrained resources, there are better ways of improving access to higher education than establishing a new middle-class entitlement.