'Free' Community College

Not a very sound idea

President Obama recently announced his goal to provide two years of “free” community college for American workers. This has been met with cheers from community college leaders, high school administrators, and plenty of Americans.

Such cheers, however, are not such a clear sign that President Obama would have us believe in the wisdom of providing free community college education. First, let’s not pretend that this is going to result in saving the country money on education — it merely changes who foots the bill. Instead of people attending community colleges paying for their own education, the American taxpayer will be tasked with doing this. Second, there is no reason to suspect that this policy will actually help anyone.

Using data from the Michigan Community College NETwork, we can clearly see that while tuition rates at community colleges have remained relatively steady, community college enrollment in Michigan has actually declined over the last three years. This suggests that fewer people are finding community college to be a worthwhile endeavor.

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According to data from the Michigan Community College Association, the current community college completion/graduation/transfer rate is an abysmal 52 percent (up from 44 percent in 2008). This means almost half of all students who enroll in a community college program fail to complete, graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. Put another way, almost half of all people who enroll in community college pay tuition but fail to obtain any type of degree, effectively throwing their money away. President Obama’s proposed plan will do nothing to address this and instead will likely set more people up for failure.

The problem with community college, and college in general for that matter, is not the cost, as every year millions of people around the country choose to enroll in some type of post-secondary education program. The problem is that these institutions are failing to provide students with an adequate education in a dynamic and increasingly global economy. While some may point to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as evidence that college is still worthwhile, these statistics are based on averages which may hide underlying characteristics of great importance.

For example, after John Elway graduated from Stanford University in 1983 with a degree in economics, the average salary of students graduating from Stanford with an economics degree was several hundred thousand dollars per year, which was significantly higher than the average salary of economics majors from other institutions. Obviously, this statistical quirk was not because the Stanford economics program was somehow special; it was because they had John Elway, who was earning millions of dollars in the NFL. By the same token, college may be worth it on average, but the millions of unemployed and underemployed college graduates in society today certainly don’t feel that way and rightfully so. Instead of trying to lower the cost, we should instead find ways to increase the benefit of furthering one’s education beyond the high school level.

One way to do this would be to instead provide students who prefer it with a voucher or tax credit for job training rather than encouraging them to enroll in a system that fails to meet their needs. Under this system, the federal government would not be telling students to enroll in a broken system, but would instead free them to attend a program that they actually want to attend and where they are more likely to succeed.

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