Last January, President Obama announced one of the most ambitious policy platforms of his presidency: A program that would make the first two years of community college free for almost every American. Telling the country that he wanted to make community college as universal as high school, Obama sketched out a $60 billion proposal that struck many within his own party as overly optimistic. Still, the idea has struck a chord among Democrats; both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have similar plans to reduce the cost of higher education.
According to a new report from the American Action Forum, however, Obama’s plan would waste billions educating students who will never emerge with a degree. Only 39% of community college students ultimately finish what they started. “This means that the president’s free college proposal would effectively be spending $36 billion of a $60 billion investment on up to 5.4 million students who will likely never receive any type of college credential,” the authors state.
The AAF is a right-leaning policy research firm, but you don’t have to take their word for it. Obama’s free college plan came under immediate fire from mainstream news magazines, featuring experts and economists who saw trouble ahead. And the federal government itself has research which states that only 19.5% of community college students graduate within three years. At two-year schools, only community colleges are seeing a decline in graduation rates.
Beyond the obvious concerns of additional federal expenditures, many experts say that Obama’s plan fails to address the real problem at the community college level, which is that these schools are in desperate need of reform. Even those who support the notion of a free-college plan insist that without these reforms, the country will just be throwing good money after bad. In fact, there is reason to think that Obama’s policy would actually make community colleges worse than they are now.
According to the White House, the plan would provide the nation’s community colleges with $6 billion a year in federal funding. This amount, though, would only preserve the current status quo, replacing the tuition that students would otherwise be paying themselves. State governments will have to pony up a quarter of the cost without any obvious financial resources. Most likely, many states will simply take that money from the direct financial subsidies they’re already providing to schools. This could easily put us in a situation where these failing schools have less money than before, lowering the quality of education even further.
If we’re going to do something to reduce the cost of college, we have to do it in a way that makes sense. Obama’s proposal, while popular in its simplicity, would waste billions of dollars without accomplishing a thing. As the AAF report’s author’s note, “The last thing our country needs right now is another program like Obamacare.”