President Biden announced another multibillion-dollar spending proposal on Wednesday: the U.S. Plan for Families. The plan includes nearly $ 300 billion for higher education, with the largest plan being a $ 109 billion program to make community colleges free. It is a bad idea that “solves” a largely imaginary problem and does not do enough to tackle much more pressing problems.
Most community colleges are already affordable
The Biden administration argues that cost is a major barrier for Americans seeking higher education. In four-year colleges, this is a real concern. But community colleges are another story. At the average two-year public college, the annual tuition fee is only $ 3,770. This figure has remained roughly constant over the past five years. Financial aid programs, including the Pell Scholarship, typically cover the full amount of tuition for low-income students.
To be sure, the averages are fair, and community college tuition fees are significantly higher in some states. In Vermont and New Hampshire, tuition fees exceed $ 7,000 per year. But those states can choose to opt out of Biden’s national tuition-free plan. America has a decentralized higher education system where states control direct funding and public college tuition rates, so most national free plans rely on a matching model that requires states to contribute. part of the funding.
States where community colleges are more expensive might choose not to participate in the national program because lowering tuition to $ 0 would be much more onerous. Therefore, Biden’s free tuition program might be leaving out exactly the subset of students who are least able to afford community college. Meanwhile, the proposal would lower tuition fees to $ 0 in states where community colleges are already fairly affordable and additional grants are not needed.
The real problem in community colleges
The most pressing issue with our community college system is not price, but quality. A student seeking a degree who enrolls in a community college has only a 40% chance of graduating within six years. Dropouts have serious consequences: Default rates for community college students are comparable to those in the much-maligned for-profit sector. Dropouts also waste time taking courses when they could build their human capital in other ways.
Aspiring students often hear that starting their degree at a community college and then moving on to a four-year school is a good way to save money. But among students who declare their intention to obtain a bachelor’s degree within five years, only 16% do. Almost half of the students who choose this route drop out of university altogether.
“Free” is a powerful brand. The prospect of a “free” community college, as opposed to a simply “affordable” community college, could drive two-year students into schools by the thousands. More students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree would choose to earn credits at a community college first. If they move from four-year schools to community colleges with higher dropout rates, free community colleges could reduce college completion rates overall.
California is an edifying tale. The Golden State has the lowest community college tuition fees in the country: just $ 715 per semester. Yet its college completion rate is lower than the national average. Replicating California’s massive investment in community colleges nationwide may not deliver the results advocates have hoped for.
Improved completion rates
To his credit, President Biden seems to recognize that low completion rates are a problem. In addition to its free college plan, it is offering an additional $ 62 billion for “completion and retention activities at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students,” particularly community colleges.
Some initiatives have been successful in increasing graduation rates at community colleges. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative at New York City University has provided students with financial assistance, counseling, career services, and many other forms of support. ASAP increased the success rate for associate’s degrees in three years from 22% to 40%.
While these results are impressive given the circumstances, the fact remains that one of the most comprehensive college graduation programs ever tried failed to graduate more than half of its graduates. timely students. And there is no guarantee that Biden’s $ 62 billion for completion initiatives will be spent on programs as effective as possible. Throwing money at the problem can’t do much.
Another way forward
More money for colleges won’t work without the right carrots and the right sticks to ensure that the money is spent wisely. Policymakers can start by leveraging existing federal spending on student aid to encourage better college outcomes. Support for schools should be conditional on good outcomes, such as high incomes and reasonable loan repayment rates. Colleges that find innovative ways to improve these outcomes will attract more students and, with them, more federal aid dollars.
Community colleges can thrive in such a system. Career-oriented associate’s degree programs, especially in healthcare and engineering, often provide graduate students with access to sought-after jobs with above-average earnings. The federal government, with its considerable financial power, can encourage community colleges to prioritize their high-value programs and close those with high dropout rates.
In addition, Biden is expected to focus on finding new avenues into the job market for people struggling in a traditional higher education setting. Even a tiny fraction of the nearly $ 300 billion Biden wants to spend on higher education would go a long way toward developing academic alternatives such as apprenticeship, workforce training, and private certification programs. Many people will find these options better suited to their talents than taking full-time college courses.
Free Community College solves a problem that largely doesn’t exist, as community college is already affordable enough. Yet this is unlikely to solve the problems plaguing this part of the higher education system, such as low completion rates and high student loan delinquencies. Taxpayers should ask what exactly they are getting for Biden’s proposed twelve-figure investment in community colleges and demand better.