[Author’s note: This column has been edited slightly to clarify its stance on college subsidies.]
We’d heard that President Obama was going to propose a substantial change to the education system during the State of the Union address, and he certainly made sure he did. If his proposal is passed, the nation’s 1,100 community colleges will become free for eligible students – as PBS put it, the goal is “making a two-year college degree as universal as a high school diploma.” For the 40 percent of college students currently studying in two-year institutions, this sounds like a great deal. And in large part, it is. Even so, I’m concerned by the continuing lack of fundamental reform that the proposal embodies.
Yesterday’s insightful piece by Austin Block, titled “Too early to judge,” went a long way towards outlining some of the key benefits and drawbacks of the plan. As such, let me widen the scope and take a look at the elephant in the room. $60 billion over 10 years (as Administration officials estimate) is a lot of money. In fact, it’s about $500 for every household in the country. With the additional taxpayer money going to community colleges, the federal government will demand more say in what exactly community colleges will teach. They will have to answer the question – what is the value of a two-year degree, and how does the Obama plan improve on that?
Right now, the purpose of community college is to provide a low-cost, flexible alternative to a four-year undergraduate degree. Students with jobs, children and other responsibilities that might not have been able to devote the time to a bachelor’s degree would be able to demonstrate their commitment to academics in a less time-consuming setting. Other students can get vocational education at a community college and learn readily marketable skills for a very reasonable price. And some students that were academically borderline when applying to four-year institutions can improve their credentials, get a better sense of what higher education demands and jump back into the fray.
Community colleges play a major role in defraying costs for both individuals and society. As is often said, college calculus is still college calculus if you take it at Moorpark College or UCLA. There are plenty of people, especially in California, that are more than smart enough to attend fantastic schools but save money by getting the introductory coursework out of the way first, and transferring into a bachelor’s program a couple years later. In fact, 29 percent of University of California graduates spent time in community college.
Admittedly, California is an outlier. The cost of attending a UC with on-campus housing is over $33,000 a year, and that’s in-state tuition. But by comparing the UC system’s ballooning costs with the California community college system’s frugality – it only costs the state $5,000 a year to support one full-time student – we can certainly conclude that there are things that the current system does well with regard to constraining costs.
Subsidizing community college may get in the way of that. Obama’s tuition plan will not funnel direct cash injections into the system. But even so, more subsidies will nevertheless introduce further distortions into the market – colleges will have more room to raise expenses and tuition unless rates are forcibly kept in check by the government. Given the history of American higher education’s rising costs, regulation’s likely not going to happen. Community colleges are supposed to keep prices in check for ordinary Americans, but the plan may raise overall costs instead.
As costs probably rise, it’s hard to imagine that taxpayers and the federal government will be happy with subsidizing community college when there is still so much uncertainty about what community college actually is. Despite the aforementioned fact that 40 percent of college students attend two-year institutions, an associate’s degree is widely considered a soft option. Never mind that in California, 80 percent of firefighters and law enforcement personnel are educated at community college, as well as 70 percent of nurses. However, the value of a degree is tied to people’s evaluations of it, and as long as we excessively devalue two-year degrees with our own stereotypes and assumptions, these degrees will legitimately have less value than they might otherwise have. If that’s the case, then subsidizing these degrees will legitimately produce fewer marginal gains.
As such, the federal government will have to go the extra mile in making its case to the American people. But Obama’s proposal essentially amounts to federal funding for institutions regulated by states, and I fully expect major wrangling over who gets to set tuition rates and curricula. From the federal government’s standpoint, funding without oversight is hardly prudent. But some state governors will view federal influence as an intrusion on their home turf.
We should not be surprised if battles break out. Massive controversies always pop up whenever the central government tries to tie federal funding with oversight and reform. I agree with Austin that it is too soon to judge whether the Obama proposal – if it is even enacted – will be a success, but I fear from the outset that it will be a classic case of sticking a square peg into a round hole.
Ultimately, however, none of this should be taken as an argument against having a strong education system. If our comparative advantage in today’s global economy is our innovation and our flexible, well-educated workforce, then we need to leverage that advantage to the fullest by educating people who cannot necessarily afford to be educated. That same principle underlies both public education as well as private institutions that offer financial aid. Our economy and society are better off because we believe in making education accessible to people of all backgrounds. We should be actively finding ways to make a stronger commitment to our communities and our country. The big question is how.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.