Written by Kush Dubey
President Obama’s free community college proposal seems like a silver bullet solution to the intractable problem that is the United States’ higher education system. The plan has a noble intention; it allows citizens to acquire a degree after two free years of community college in order to lift them into the middle class, filling jobs for the future while resulting in upward mobility for an estimated nine million students. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the President would realistically be pushing students into a broken system at the expense of American taxpayers. Over ten years, $60 billion of public funds would be allocated towards a policy that fails to grant unemployed citizens useful degrees in the job market, ignores the true cause of high college attendance costs, and depends on currently failing community colleges to improve the situation of students without proposing any curriculum reform.
Firstly, the claim that two out of three jobs will require a degree by 2020, as mentioned in the President’s January State of the Union Address isn’t corroborated by the President’s own federal department for labor economics and statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy will create 50.6 million job openings by 2022 and only 27.1 percent will require college degrees. That’s a projected increase of only 2.1 percent requiring degrees since 1996. The very premise of the proposal—that everyone in the United States should have a college education—isn’t an economically viable one considering that more than two-thirds of jobs in the next seven years may not require a college degree. Layering this expense on American citizens by spending billions of dollars to create universal accessibility to community college does not have a guaranteed return on investment.
Furthermore, two years of higher education only allows students to obtain associate’s degrees, instead of advanced and more useful degrees such as four-year bachelor’s degrees. According to the Census Bureau, pursuing a professional certification, or a bachelor’s degree, often pays substantially higher than an associate’s degree. This is can be augmented by the fact that the U.S. has been experiencing credential inflation in the labor sector for the past decade, in which degrees of lower relative stature become devalued as more and more people get higher degrees. An associate’s degree frankly is not the driving factor in upward mobility, making the President’s plan unhelpful to the bulk of unemployed citizens who seek a middle-class job.
Perhaps the most glaring flaw in bringing the cost of tuition to zero is the fact that tuition is not representative of the majority of college attendance costs. More than half of the cost of community college derives from textbooks, meals, rooming, and many other factors according to a 2012 National Center for Education Statistics report. Increased tuition aid is not solving for the root of the financial reason why potential students are driven out of attending community college.
Lastly, it isn’t sensible to nudge students toward a community college sector that is incapable of repositioning its model around student success. According to the Community College Research Center (CCRC), community colleges today have a 22 percent completion rate and a 25 percent transfer rate. CCRC furthers its analysis by claiming that just 17 percent of all community college enrollees obtain a professional certification within the next six years of transferring. Clearly, community colleges are internally dysfunctional in both motivating students to graduate and in encouraging students to obtain higher, more practical degrees such as bachelor’s degrees. By incentivizing students with full tuition aid, the proposal would singularly funnel students into a system that has not yielded any measurable benefit, only at the cost of taxpayer dollars. With such unprofitable results, taxpayer dollars would be wasted through this community college plan.
There are ways the government can encourage colleges to do better without necessarily making college free and governing them in a top-down fashion. Students need a plan that gives them more flexibility in the diverse education system the Unites States offers. $60 billion can be spent better by pushing them into alternative methods of education where they can get degrees that are actually helpful in acquiring a middle-class job.