Obama community college plan: Free education is an elegant and forward-thinking idea, unlike virtually all U.S. policy fixes.

The Brilliant Elegance of Obama’s Plan to Make Community College Free

The Brilliant Elegance of Obama’s Plan to Make Community College Free

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 13 2015 4:40 PM

Kludge Not

Obama’s plan for free community college is elegant and forward-thinking—unlike virtually all U.S. policy fixes.

Community college students
Obama’s plan might make it possible for some community college students to work fewer hours and attend full time, which in turn may make them more likely to graduate.

Photo by Thinkstock

A few years ago, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Steven Teles wrote a wonderfully insightful essay titled “Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy.” In computer-programmer slang, a kludge is a clumsy or awkward patch that keeps a system working without addressing its fundamental problems, the equivalent of duct tape on a busted-up fender. It might be temporarily effective but also sets up problems down the road. “When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program,” Teles wrote, “one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.”

Jordan Weissmann Jordan Weissmann

Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.

America’s government, Teles argued, is addicted to kludges, just like Steve Ballmer–era Microsoft. To avoid ticking off entrenched interests, or voters who are suspicious of government even though they not-so-secretly want its help, Washington has come to specialize in roundabout, inelegant policy ideas that fix old difficulties but create new ones. Obamacare, which was designed to leave most of our unfathomably complicated and expensive health care system in place while expanding insurance coverage, is the most obvious case. But another example, Teles writes, is “our Byzantine system of funding higher education.”

I found myself thinking about that observation last week, after President Obama unveiled his plan to make community college tuition free for every student “willing to work for it.” The announcement surprised and delighted many liberals, who tend to believe that the government has an obligation to provide a basic education to everybody in the country. In post-industrial America, that increasingly means at least a couple years of college. Ipso facto, free higher education is a good idea. But philosophical reasons aside, the Obama plan is also exciting for the simple reason that it isn’t another kludge.

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To understand why that’s so important, we need to talk about why college is so expensive in this country in the first place. It’s a complicated story, but the basic outline is this: For several decades now, colleges have failed to control their costs. At the same time, budget-pressed states have cut per-student funding. Combined, those two forces have pushed public colleges and universities to increase their tuition. (You can argue over whether government defunding or out-of-control spending is more important, but both have played a role.) The federal government, seeing all this, has tried to combat rising prices without demanding too much from states or schools, instead offering loans, grants, and tax breaks directly to students so they can afford an education.

Of course, this has bred other problems. Federal financial aid has made it possible for states to keep cutting their appropriations and for schools to keep hiking tuition without hurting enrollment. Meanwhile, it’s also nourished a predatory for-profit college industry that lures in low-income, underprepared students so it can feed off their federal loan and grant dollars. (Disclosure: Slate is owned by Graham Holdings Co., owner of Kaplan University, a for-profit college company.) Add it all up together, mix in rising enrollment and a faltering economy that’s hammered family incomes, and you get our enormous student-loan problem. We saw the system was malfunctioning. We patched it with one kludge after another. And now we’re staring at the blue screen of death.

Theoretically, we could solve all this by reinvesting in our public colleges so that tuition stays cheap. For a while now, I’ve argued that Washington could actually make state-school tuition free for today’s students if it just redirected the money it spends on financial aid at private schools into the public system. It’s similar to the idea that America would be better off if we laid waste to our weird public-private health care system and switched to single payer. But just like that particular liberal dream, making public colleges tuition-free with the money we already spend is unrealistic because it would be massively disruptive to the status quo, and university lobbyists would scream bloody murder.

But it might not be so crazy to try the experiment on a smaller scale with community colleges, as Obama has proposed. Under his plan, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost of tuition for students enrolled at least half time while participating states would pick up the rest. In other words, Washington would give a hand only if state governments promise not to use it as an excuse to shirk their own responsibilities. Implicitly, it also encourages states to make sure community colleges keep their costs down—though, unlike four-year schools, their spending hasn’t grown much in recent years. In the end, it seems designed to break the cycle of increasing costs and rising government aid. And it may be realistic because in the grand scheme of things, it’s dirt cheap.

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Yes, dirt cheap. Right now, the White House estimates that its plan would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. The states would be on the hook for another $20 billion. To put that in context, the feds currently spend almost $68 billion annually on financial aid—a large chunk of which is delivered as tax breaks that often go to high-income families. States, meanwhile, award billions more in scholarships to students. Somewhere in those giant pools of money, it should be possible to find $8 billion a year that would be better spent making community colleges tuition-free.

One major argument against free community college is that it’s unnecessary. The published tuition at two-year public schools has been rising. But as Slate columnist Reihan Salam notes at National Review, it’s still inexpensive. And after government- and institution-based financial aid is taken into account, low-income students already pay $0 in tuition, on average. “I’m hard-pressed to see why this initiative will have a ‘huge’ impact, given that we’re presumably most concerned about improving community college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he writes.

This, I think, undersells the benefits of Obama’s plan. The White House is proposing a so-called first-dollar program, meaning that it would zero out tuition costs and let students use their federal grants to help cover living expenses. That might make it possible for some students to work fewer hours and attend full time, which in turn may make them more likely to graduate.

If so, it would be reason to celebrate. As Tyler Cowen and others have noted, community colleges have a terrible dropout problem. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, about 61 percent of first-time undergraduates who enroll at them fail to finish any kind of degree within six years. In fact, it’s fair to say that we don’t need more students attending college so much as we need more students who finish it. And bringing down living costs so students can study instead of work full time seems like one of the more promising ways to do it. Short of guaranteeing every student a living-wage, part-time job, as professors Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall suggested in their own influential proposal to make community college free, letting students use their federal grants to pay rent seems like one of the most straightforward ways to do it.

But again, the Obama plan isn’t merely appealing because it might increase college access or success. It’s exciting because it could show us a way to make our entire system of higher education more efficient by forcing the federal government and states to cooperate on controlling costs and providing funding. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be challenges. Take Tennessee, where state officials expect community-college enrollment to grow by about one-third thanks to a free-tuition program that helped inspire the White House’s proposal. Accommodating those students will take money and classroom space, and under Obama’s plan, we should expect the same to happen in other states. (That said, depending on how many of those students would have started as undergraduates at four-year colleges, the state’s university system could end up saving some expenses.)

But compared with the dilemma of declining state funding and uncontrolled costs, drawing more kids into the community-college system isn’t such an awful problem to have. Compared with what we’ve tried already, free higher education may the elegant solution we’ve been waiting for, instead of just another kludge.