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Obama’s community college proposal: Too early to judge

At first glance, it sounds misanthropic to criticize President Obama’s new community college plan. How could one possibly criticize a program whose goal is to make community college — a gateway to secure, middle class jobs — free for everyone? However, the implications of Obama’s proposal aren’t as clear as they initially seem. Although the plan is undoubtedly good politics, it is too early to tell if it is also good policy.

On one hand, it is a populist policy: By increasing access to education for large swathes of the American public, Obama portrays himself as the champion of both middle- and low-income Americans. On the other, the policy can also be cast as a pro-business, patriotic investment in the American economy. Regardless of whether or not Congress actually funds his plan, the mere announcement of the proposal wins Obama a significant political victory.

However, while the plan is politically savvy, there are a few legitimate concerns about its policy implications. First, by offering subsidies to all community college students who attend at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA, the plan could waste public dollars on students who do not need financial aid. A survey found that in the 2010-11 school year, 22% of students in households earning $100,000 or more attended community college, a number likely inflated by the recession (it was 12% a year earlier), but nevertheless significant. In light of this reality, some argue that it is irresponsible to spend a sizable chunk of a $60 billion plan on students who don’t really need financial aid.

Second, as two William and Mary economists point out, this program might not work exactly as planned. When low-income students earn admission to a four-year university, financial aid often does not cover the full cost of attendance. As a result, if Obama’s proposal becomes law, low-income students may choose to save money by attending community college for two years and then transferring to a university to finish their bachelor’s degrees. Unfortunately, however, the probability that a student will actually transfer is not particularly high. Thanks to a number of factors, including over-enrollment, large class sizes, bureaucratic obstacles, unstructured academic programs and abominable counselor-to-student ratios (as high as 1500-1), the national three-year graduation rate from community colleges is 20%. Although many low-income students already choose community colleges over universities in order to cut costs, Obama’s plan may exacerbate this trend, funneling even more low-income students into schools from which they are much less likely to graduate.

Third, subsidizing community college may place significant pressure on four-year public colleges. If the number of students attending community college rises, the number of students applying to transfer to public universities is also likely to rise. This will force universities to respond in one of two ways: Either they can increase selectivity in transfer admissions, or they can admit more transfer students and face higher costs and larger class sizes. In the first situation, the universities’ increased selectivity negates some of the benefits of attending community college in the first place. In the second, universities are forced to make a choice between raising tuition and diluting educational quality. In the absence of financial support for cash-strapped public universities, some of the promise of community college reform is lost.

As damning as these concerns might sound, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg interprets the supposed flaws of the plan in a fundamentally different light. Rather than wasting money on middle- and upper-income students, Kahlenberg claims, the universality of the administration’s proposal will do something special: By luring middle and high-income students into community colleges, it will promote greater socioeconomic integration in these schools. Since middle- and high-income people tend to have more influence in state politics, increasing the number of middle- and high-income people who have a stake in the community college system could give those colleges greater leverage in state legislatures. Community colleges could then use this leverage to win more state funding and improve the quality of instruction.

In addition, Kahlenberg cites an author who argues that, as the percentage of low-income students at community colleges rises, teachers may reduce expectations and water down curricula. If greater integration can counteract this trend, then it may also have immediate educational value, even in the absence of changes in political bargaining power at the state level. Finally, Kahlenberg argues that the simplicity of the Obama plan could also work in its favor: If complex financial aid systems deter some low-income students from attending community college, then simplifying the process may induce more students to enter the system.

For now, the jury is still out: Whether or not Obama’s plan is good policy depends on the extent to which each of the above hypotheses will actually come to fruition. If free community college increases integration and enrollment without distorting the decision-making of low-income students, then it is probably a good plan. In contrast, if the plan does little to increase the power of community colleges and merely tracks more low-income students into poorly funded schools, then it may do more harm than good. Of course, the ultimate goal is to make both community colleges and four-year universities more accessible and more affordable to Americans of all income levels. However, in the absence of more comprehensive reform, the only thing voters can do is to compare the benefits and costs of a more limited, single-sector plan.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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