Obama's Free Community College Proposal Is Ridiculous

As someone who has spent over 15 years teaching at community colleges, I cannot think of a worse idea than President Obama’s proposal for the federal government to provide “free” community college tuition nationwide.  Here’s why:

Nothing in life is “free”: The lesson we should be teaching our students is that nothing of value is free.  “Free community college” for students translates into “a tax increase for somebody else.”  Who is going to pay for the billions of dollars it will cost to provide “free” tuition at community colleges, which are heavily subsidized by taxpayers already?  College should be affordable, but students need to responsibly shoulder most of the cost.

The federal government has no business in education: Article 1, Sec. 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government. Education is not one of them.  The 10th Amendment stipulates that all powers not granted to the federal government belong to the states – and this includes education from kindergarten through graduate school.  States are perfectly capable of maintaining community colleges without interference from federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and all the strings they will invariably attach to the “free” program.

You get what you pay for: If community college becomes “free,” it will attract even more unserious students than the ones already enrolled in community colleges.  Anecdotally, I’d say that about half the students in community colleges are not ready for college-level work.  (I worked at one community college in which the department that offered the most course sections of any department on campus was the remedial education department.)  Many students enroll in community colleges simply because they were handed a high-school diploma based on grade inflation and social promotion and have no clue what to do next.  Fall semesters tend to produce the worst students; many simply disappear without a trace after a few weeks.  Those who hang around until the spring semester are usually more serious.  It’s also true that some community college students “game” the financial aid system; they attend long enough to get their checks, then vamoose.

Of course, there are excellent students in community colleges, too.  They tend to fall into two categories: adult students, such as veterans, laid-off workers, retirees, and housewives; and students enrolled in highly-selective technical programs like nursing, radiologic technology, and dental hygiene.  But community college administrators rely heavily on maximizing the enrollment of “live bodies with a pulse” in general and remedial studies to subsidize the technical programs, which are often costly and are money-losers for the institution.

Obama’s proposal will promote grade inflation: The Obama proposal is to provide “free” tuition for students who maintain a C+ average.  This will almost certainly result in rampant grade inflation (which is prevalent already).  If a student deserves a grade of C, D, or F, the faculty member assigning the grade will be pressured to issue a C+ anyway.  The pressure will come from the faculty themselves, who often will not want the guilt of costing the student thousands of dollars; it will come from students, begging for a C+ and offering sob stories at the end of the semester; and it will come from administrators, conscious of the financial cost to the institution if too many students fail out or drop out.

Federally guaranteed tuition will increase inefficiency and patronage: Community colleges are often swamps of political patronage, nepotism, and favoritism.  Non-teaching employees and administrators are lavishly paid, and they frequently get their jobs through political or personal connections.  Community college presidents can easily make a quarter-million per year (or more).  Many do not have academic degrees.  Administrators, deans, clerks, coaches, and other non-teaching faculty often make solid five- or six-figure incomes.  But it is usually a different story for teaching faculty.  Many community colleges rely upon adjunct faculty to teach 70% to 80% of their course offerings.  Adjuncts are typically paid in the neighborhood of $2,000 (or less) per course, and they work on a per-semester contract without any benefits or job security.

If the federal government guarantees a source of income for community colleges, it is nearly certain that administrators will use it to line their own pockets and increase patronage and nepotism hires, while continuing to rely on untenured itinerant labor for teaching faculty.

The idea that local communities should make available an affordable, no-frills post-secondary education for students without the financial resources or SAT scores to attend institutions like Duke or Yale is a sound one.  But community colleges should be supported and maintained by local governments based on the needs of the local job market, and they should maintain sufficient academic rigor so that a student who attends has some “skin in the game” and pays his tuition based upon a mature cost-benefit analysis relative to his educational and career aspirations.

The Obama proposal will turn community college into yet another entitlement.  It will almost certainly encourage legions of students to simply burn government money and “hang out” for two years after high school before they start to get serious about education, careers, and life in general.  Community college should be an opportunity for mature young adults – not another federal welfare program.

As someone who has spent over 15 years teaching at community colleges, I cannot think of a worse idea than President Obama’s proposal for the federal government to provide “free” community college tuition nationwide.  Here’s why:

Nothing in life is “free”: The lesson we should be teaching our students is that nothing of value is free.  “Free community college” for students translates into “a tax increase for somebody else.”  Who is going to pay for the billions of dollars it will cost to provide “free” tuition at community colleges, which are heavily subsidized by taxpayers already?  College should be affordable, but students need to responsibly shoulder most of the cost.

The federal government has no business in education: Article 1, Sec. 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government. Education is not one of them.  The 10th Amendment stipulates that all powers not granted to the federal government belong to the states – and this includes education from kindergarten through graduate school.  States are perfectly capable of maintaining community colleges without interference from federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and all the strings they will invariably attach to the “free” program.

You get what you pay for: If community college becomes “free,” it will attract even more unserious students than the ones already enrolled in community colleges.  Anecdotally, I’d say that about half the students in community colleges are not ready for college-level work.  (I worked at one community college in which the department that offered the most course sections of any department on campus was the remedial education department.)  Many students enroll in community colleges simply because they were handed a high-school diploma based on grade inflation and social promotion and have no clue what to do next.  Fall semesters tend to produce the worst students; many simply disappear without a trace after a few weeks.  Those who hang around until the spring semester are usually more serious.  It’s also true that some community college students “game” the financial aid system; they attend long enough to get their checks, then vamoose.

Of course, there are excellent students in community colleges, too.  They tend to fall into two categories: adult students, such as veterans, laid-off workers, retirees, and housewives; and students enrolled in highly-selective technical programs like nursing, radiologic technology, and dental hygiene.  But community college administrators rely heavily on maximizing the enrollment of “live bodies with a pulse” in general and remedial studies to subsidize the technical programs, which are often costly and are money-losers for the institution.

Obama’s proposal will promote grade inflation: The Obama proposal is to provide “free” tuition for students who maintain a C+ average.  This will almost certainly result in rampant grade inflation (which is prevalent already).  If a student deserves a grade of C, D, or F, the faculty member assigning the grade will be pressured to issue a C+ anyway.  The pressure will come from the faculty themselves, who often will not want the guilt of costing the student thousands of dollars; it will come from students, begging for a C+ and offering sob stories at the end of the semester; and it will come from administrators, conscious of the financial cost to the institution if too many students fail out or drop out.

Federally guaranteed tuition will increase inefficiency and patronage: Community colleges are often swamps of political patronage, nepotism, and favoritism.  Non-teaching employees and administrators are lavishly paid, and they frequently get their jobs through political or personal connections.  Community college presidents can easily make a quarter-million per year (or more).  Many do not have academic degrees.  Administrators, deans, clerks, coaches, and other non-teaching faculty often make solid five- or six-figure incomes.  But it is usually a different story for teaching faculty.  Many community colleges rely upon adjunct faculty to teach 70% to 80% of their course offerings.  Adjuncts are typically paid in the neighborhood of $2,000 (or less) per course, and they work on a per-semester contract without any benefits or job security.

If the federal government guarantees a source of income for community colleges, it is nearly certain that administrators will use it to line their own pockets and increase patronage and nepotism hires, while continuing to rely on untenured itinerant labor for teaching faculty.

The idea that local communities should make available an affordable, no-frills post-secondary education for students without the financial resources or SAT scores to attend institutions like Duke or Yale is a sound one.  But community colleges should be supported and maintained by local governments based on the needs of the local job market, and they should maintain sufficient academic rigor so that a student who attends has some “skin in the game” and pays his tuition based upon a mature cost-benefit analysis relative to his educational and career aspirations.

The Obama proposal will turn community college into yet another entitlement.  It will almost certainly encourage legions of students to simply burn government money and “hang out” for two years after high school before they start to get serious about education, careers, and life in general.  Community college should be an opportunity for mature young adults – not another federal welfare program.