President Obama, likely influenced by his personal experience with college loan debt, is taken with the idea of offering Americans two years of free community college. The real issue, of course, is that one person’s “free” is another person’s suddenly exorbitant tax bill. So the question becomes, what do we owe one another, and do the long-term benefits outweigh the significant immediate costs?
Is a college education a household necessity, like milk or bread? It’s not clear that it is.
For starters, a majority of Americans are still not college graduates, even when the term is broadened to include community college. In fact, “in 2012, [only] 39.4 percent of Americans between 25 and 64 had at least a two-year college degree.” And only about one-third of Americans have a bachelor’s degree.
By urging more students to attend community college with the lure of free tuition, the president also increases the likelihood that taxpayers will be subsidizing more remedial – or high school level – courses at college prices. “About 40% of students entering community colleges enroll in at least one remedial course, according to the Education Department; only about 1 in 4 of them will earn a degree or certificate.”
Lastly, given the history of the federal government’s involvement in student loans and the ever higher cost of higher education, the federal government’s increased involvement in community college is likely to explode the cost of community college tuition as well. So, the public would be subsidizing an increasingly expensive two-year college degree with program costs we can’t even accurately project today.
Why not urge local communities to focus on fixing flailing public high schools instead? Those degrees are already free (entirely subsidized by taxpayers), and all hard-working students deserve a return on their investment of four years’ time. A high school degree should mean something, and a student who has one in hand should be properly prepared to excel in a college setting.