President Obama’s plan to offer universal free community college “to those who are willing to work for it” is essentially a scheme to have taxpayers foot the bill for two extra years of high school.
This is not to say that all community colleges are glorified high schools. Many are comparable in rigor to four-year universities, including the one I attended. It is to say, however, that community college, particularly for the liberal arts graduates, does exactly what junior and senior year of high school should have done.
But due to a steady decline in academic standards and a “race toward the middle” approach to public-school education, where struggling or failing students drag back the rest of their class, college in general is often perceived as essential education for one to become a productive and successful economic participant.
Like so many other pundits, Tamara Draut on “Fox and Friends” recited a popular line of thinking that has helped drive the college frenzy, saying, “We know that the jobs that are here today and in the future are going to require more college than our citizens are currently getting.”
Well, no. The problem is not that students aren’t getting enough college. The problem is that students aren’t getting enough education. America is spending a whole lot of tax dollars on subpar public schools.
Public School Education Is Turning Into a Scam
My home state of Washington spends about $10,063 per student, and Washington DC spends more than $18,000 per student on K-12 education. On average, the nation’s taxpayers shell out $10,600 dollars per student per year to educate them in the public schools. That’s over $127, 000 over twelve grades, and the figure doesn’t include capital costs such as school construction and maintenance.
Tuition for the community college I attended was approximately $4,000 per year, assuming one was taking 45 credits per year. But tuition doesn’t reflect the actual cost of a junior college education. Washington State‘s proposed budget for 2015-2017 is more than $800 million. SBTC.edu, Washington’s main website for the 3- college system, claims that it “prepares nearly 400,000 students for careers, to transfer to four-year colleges and universities, and with new skills for better lives.” That translates to just above $1,000 in subsidies annually per student, and factoring in books and supplies, a sum of about $6,100 per year per student. Had I been educated in the public school system, my education through freshman and sophomore year of college would have cost a whopping $151,400.
In other words, we are spending a fortune on educating American children, yet we still feel that we must spend even more money, and another four or more years going into deep personal debt (for which the taxpayers are on the hook) to be “ready for the workforce.”
Are you telling me that in 13 years of having children focus on practically nothing outside of education (fewer and fewer teens have part-time jobs now), we graduate them without the tools they need to succeed in the job market? This has to be the biggest scam the government has ever run on us. Yet America is poised, if Obama has his way, to swallow an estimated $60 billion in new taxes, because we’ve done such a bang-up job with kids’ first 13 years of “education.”
Let’s be clear: advocates for free community college are advocating for six years of public high school, and a mediocre six years at that. The reasoning is two-fold: One, that community college provides education our current high schools should be able to, and two, that once “free” community college is established, government bloat ensues, further reducing the quality of junior college education.
Let the Grade Inflation Continue Unchecked
Government bloat will occur in at least two ways, besides the administrative costs of yet another new layer of bumbling bureaucracy. The first is grade inflation, which is a long-recognized problem in public schools and universities alike. Due to our phobia against failing pupils, students tend to achieve higher grades for poorer work, and as a result they continue to pass from grade to grade regardless of their grasp of the material. This inflates graduation rates, which means that many students graduate who are unable to pass entrance exams or meet specific criteria universities set. While SAT scores remained remarkably steady from ‘96 to ‘06, the average grade point average of high school graduates rose from 2.6 to 2.9. If that trend has continued over the last eight years, average grades for graduates are over 3.0.
Grade inflation aside, many people who don’t qualify for entrance to a university do qualify for junior college enrollment. It’s not just the lower bar for admittance, but the fact that the institution is equipped to handle lower academic achievers and to finish the job of the public high schools with pre-college or remedial coursework. This makes community college a natural path of least resistance for students with academic deficiencies who still want the economic benefits advertised for post-secondary education.
Assuming “free community college” is not a golden ticket to stay enrolled forever, that there are reasonable expectations for student achievement, the very tools that make community college a natural choice for this class of students now create a dilemma: if students start out community college further behind, is it reasonable to expect them to graduate with their junior degree in two years?
Current trends suggest not. According to The College Board, “among the 2005 starting cohort, only 21% of those registered as degree-seeking completed associate degrees or certificates within 150% of the normal time. At for-profit institutions, this figure was 58.4%.”
Yes, less than a quarter of the starting cohort were able to earn a degree within nine quarters, or 27 months, of enrollment. Assuming this trend has continued, the real cost of community college is over three-fourths the cost of junior and senior year of high school, rather than about half.
Look Out for Enrollment Inflation
As much as we don’t like to admit it, money is factor in our educational choices. Sometimes the cost of tuition is too high to justify going back to school over continuing down one’s current career path. Sometimes high-school graduates see joining the workforce directly as a better individual decision, instead of laboring through two more years of academics that are not guaranteed to equip him for the job market.
But when there’s no money barrier, the number of people who would find community college more advantageous will vastly increase, just as the Cash for Clunkers program incentivized people to buy newer, more fuel efficient vehicles instead of keeping their current, older car. This is where the second aspect to government bloat comes in: enrollment inflation.
All colleges will be competing for federal dollars earmarked for the 100 percent subsidized program. Whether the funds are dealt out directly from the federal government or allocated to the states, who in turn allocate to individual colleges, it stands to reason that a key method to obtaining more federal funding is to prove that your college has higher enrollments for students that qualify for the program.
This is where academic rigor could really take a hit. Lowering entrance standards is one way to further increase the number of students that qualify for enrollment, or in President Obama’s nebulous terms, “those who are willing to work for it.”
Not only will the cost to taxpayers increase, but the growth in enrollment from students who are not personally financially invested in their own success will use up precious educational resources, only to drop out. This is likely cancel out any economic gains from the “investment” made in students who use the system wisely. Meaning, the likelihood that the taxpayer will receive any sort of net economic benefit from a more college-educated population is slim to none.
Enrollment inflation leaves one of two options: for the federal government to permit junior colleges to lower their standards even further on the justification that everyone deserves a junior college education, no matter how long it takes for them to catch up (or if they even finish), or to establish the federal government as the universal arbiter of academic standards for community college. Given the government’s propensity to make entitlements ever easier to gain, it’s hard to imagine standards holding steady, much less becoming more rigorous.
Of Course, This All Leads to Lower-Quality Education Everywhere
Grade inflation and enrollment inflation caused by converting community college to an entitlement will produce a high school graduating cohort that is ill-equipped for college work and weighed down by a less-motivated group of junior college entrants.
Whether community colleges maintain autonomy in standards or surrender it to their federal sponsor, any way you cut it, we’d still be left to pick up the tab for yet another entitlement billed to us as a “necessary investment,” courtesy the Obama administration.
None of this is to say that community college itself is a poor investment. I am truly grateful for community colleges, as they compensate for the pathetic reality of public K-12 education. Many people in various seasons of life get a fresh start in community college by earning their GED or enrolling in vocational programs. Still others enroll in college their junior or senior year of high school through programs like Running Start in hopes of graduating college one or even two years early.
Community college can be a smart short-term investment for many individuals, maybe even worth going into debt for. But when personal investments are converted to universal entitlements, quality declines for everyone while the tax increases are a burden they will pay for a lifetime.
Obama’s new entitlement plan will only succeed if the American people are ignorant enough to fall for the soaring rhetoric of hope and opportunity and the American dream; these platitudes of government benevolence mask a great cost and threaten to bloat an otherwise largely efficient system and turn community college into a mirror image in quality and funding to public K-12 education.
No, if we are earnest about setting students up for success, we should focus on reforming K-12 education, returning the responsibility of funding and management wholly to the state and local governments, empowering communities to offer better, more efficient education and to rise to higher standards, to ensure their children will graduate with at least the basic skills they need to get a good job and support themselves.
They say the best things in life are free; but this isn’t true. The best things, the most valuable things, are the ones you work and pay for on your own. Free community college will rob future generations of not just a quality education, but the underrated yet lasting satisfaction of earning it themselves.