'Free' Community College Already Costs 50 Percent More than Originally Estimated

Draft legislation incentivizes annual tuition increases and more administration.


I'm not paying for these chuckleheads.

This week a couple of legislators and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released the draft legislation of the proposed "free community college" plan Barack Obama introduced in January. Probably the most important detail is that the federal government itself now estimates the cost of providing a "free" community college education jumping from $60 billion to $90 billion.

Matthew Disler at Real Clear Politics explains some of the latest information here.  In addition to subsidizing community college attendance, it also directs some money toward colleges that privately serve minorities.

For those who missed the whole thing, here are the basics: President Barack Obama and several leading Democrats want to make community college free for students who would then transfer to four-year colleges for bachelor's degrees and for those who are in training programs for occupations that the state determines to be part of an "in-demand industry sector." The federal government will pay two-thirds of the cost, but states will have to chip in one-third to participate.

The bill (pdf) would limit annual tuition increases to 3 percent of the total tuition. This will prevent any outrageous increases in order to milk the program, but it also essentially incentivizes an annual increase in tuition in every single state, which presumably would also affect students who don't qualify for this program.

The legislation does restrict states to offering free tuition to "first-time" students only, thus trying to avoid dealing with students dropping out and dropping back in later, which, frankly, is one of the actual beneficial features of community college if you're poor. It requires students to attend school at least half-time, keep their grades up, and the gravy train cuts off after three years, regardless of whether the student has completed his or her education. Note, though, that if a state ends up with leftover money from this program, they can spend it in a number of different listed ways, including expanding who qualifies for money.

I have said before that this program is a subsidy for colleges and more specifically college administrators, and nothing in the draft legislation convinces me otherwise. The students will actually never see a cent of this money. It will all be handled with waivers. It is not a loan. If the student drops out or flunks out in a year, the money is lost (to the taxpayers, not to the college the money had been distributed to). This incentivizes colleges keeping students on board and giving them good grades, even if they aren't learning anything or are ultimately incapable of handling college-level material.

It also mandates community college systems provide plans for "institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes." I suppose writing on a slip of paper "Grade inflation!" would not qualify. The act doesn't mandate anything in particular, but it does give a bunch of suggestions, such as more mentoring and student supports services, more accelerated learning opportunities, course redesigns, and strengthening remedial programs to account for the massive failures of our other program that provides "free" education. How long will it be before taxpayers are funding programs at four-year schools to provide the remedial education for students who pass through this program?

So again, this incentivizes the college to introduce more bureaucracy and administration to oversee the improving of outcomes. There is not an option for any college or state to say, "Actually, we think we're managing our students just fine, thanks!" The legislation does prohibit schools from using the funding from the grants to actually pay for administrating the grant program.

Disler back at Real Clear Politics notes that the Democratic candidates for president are putting their own plans together to try to reduce the debt burdens for students attempting to attend college. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to make it all free, of course, and make evil corporations pay for it. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to implement cost controls for tuitions, tying them to a percentage of state median incomes. But then he also wants to increase Pell Grants, which could undercut efforts to control costs. Hillary Clinton has not released her college plan yet, but is expected to soon.

None of these plans seem to seriously deal with the fact that its government subsidies to education that have driven up these costs. That massive debt middle class students are racking up isn't paying for instructors. It's paying for boatloads after boatloads of administrators making plum salaries for managing these reform programs that the government insists will make colleges better. The government isn't making college cheaper. It's making it even more expensive.

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  1. I’m not paying for these chuckleheads.

    I’d pay for Allison Brie.

    1. Re: Use of “chuckleheads”

      I trademarked that term years ago when I called my intoxicated girlfriend that and she lost her shit (figuratively). However, I also don’t believe in IP law, so carry on.

    2. Me too. But season 4 is still the worst.

    3. Alison, not Allison!

      1. +1 Elvis
        -1 Pixie

    4. Some of us don’t need to pay.

      1. You’re probably paying for those hallucinogens you’re on.

        1. he’s high on liberty. It was the 4th of July special.

    5. she is the tits.

    6. In the alternative, I’d pay for Gillian Jacobs. Tits aren’t everything. I kinda feel bad for her that she’s the plain one.

  2. Surprise, surprise, surprise….

    /Gomer Pyle

  3. The bubble is now complete.

    1. “When I left you, I was but the learner; now *I* am the master”

      1. Only a master of economic upheaval, Barack.

  4. Having government give something away for free is the most effective way of making it more expensive.

  5. But I thought ‘free’ meant it didn’t cost anything.

    /naive waif

    1. “Free” means other people’s money. Like Asian minorities, that doesn’t count.

  6. OT: Which organization regularly asks these questions to prospective entrants?

    Did you come to Earth for evil purposes?
    Have you ever smothered a baby?
    Have you ever enslaved a population?
    Have you ever destroyed a culture?
    Have you ever torn out someone’s tongue?
    Have you ever zapped anyone?
    Have you ever eaten a human body?
    Have you ever made a planet, or nation, radioactive?

    1. Either the Men in Black, or Scientologists. I’m guessing the latter. Alien customs probably aren’t quite so difficult.

      1. It is in fact Scientologists. It’s a testament to human stupidity that this organization can continue to exist, even as the knowledge of how they operate is publicly available.

        1. It’s not all that much more ridiculous than the mythologies of any religion. It just sounds extra silly because most religions are old, or pretend to be old, and for some reason it’s easier to believe in ridiculous fantasy if people have been believing it for thousands of years.

    2. Vogons?

    3. The Affront?

    4. That Scientology navy? Searforce, or something like that…

    5. The U.S. Senate. If you answer “no” to any of those questions you’re not qualified.

    6. So we know Warty is not a scientologist.

      1. Jeez, give the guy a break. You enslave ONE population…

    7. This sounds like some of the questions they ask for some types of govt security clearances.

      (Hint: at least 6 should be answered yes.)

  7. OT: we need more political signs like this one.

    1. That is one of the best conceived signs ever created.

  8. FREE SHIT, young adult cohort.

  9. At this point, no matter how much I save for my kid’s college, I fear that government’s going to do its damndest to make it too expensive by the time she hits college.

    1. Saving is a sucker’s game. If you don’t, you’ll get the thing for free. If you do, you’ll have to pay.

      1. This. Besides which, how long before they hit the 529s with taxes?

        1. My understanding is that they aren’t worth it anyway, since the only tax break you get is a state tax credit (and only in some states), and state taxes are deductible from your federal taxes anyway. Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong about that.

          Anyway, it’s always better to fully fund your retirement first. Your kid can work and get loans for school. Retirement? Not so much.

          1. You’re wrong. The principle and gains are federally tax exempt as long as they’re spent on qualifying educational expenses. Some states provide further incentives, but they’re relatively rare and usually pretty small.

    2. Don’t worry, by the time your kid is ready for college the curriculum will be at the same level she is at now. So it will be like she has a college education already!

  10. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the French terrorist action, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, on NZ soil.

    They were caught almost straight away, as it was a pretty amateur operation.

    1. Operation Satanique

      Point for self awareness.

    2. I believe you mean “French counter-terrorist action,” n’est-ce pas?

  11. This was established 25 years ago.

    Nobody rides for free:

  12. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to make it all free, of course, and make evil corporations pay for it.

    I’m actually in favor of this plan, but not in the way that I suspect Bernie Sanders would be. College should return to a system where people secure jobs, and then that employer pays for the employee to gain additional training that will be helpful to them in that field. Of course, that would entirely eliminate a vast array of useless majors, so it will never happen. But it would certainly help to lower costs for students intent on getting a meaningful college degree.

    If my college was paid for by an engineering firm after I got good grades in Calculus in high school, I definitely would have gotten an engineering degree (which I consistently think back about in regret) rather than “falling into” an Anthropology degree…

    1. Eh, I got an engineering degree through a scholarship, and while I did well enough to become comfortably poor, I often wonder if I should have done something else.

      Unless you plan on being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, or scholar, you should probably shouldn’t go to college, especially if you have to borrow lots of money to do it. I do not recall a single adult giving that advice to me or anyone else.

      1. Stop othering the “studies” majors

        1. Why? They other themselves and expect us to pay for it.

  13. If you thought college was already expensive, wait until you see how much it costs when it’s free.

  14. You get what you pay for.

  15. How long will it be before taxpayers are funding programs at four-year schools to provide the remedial education for students who pass through this program?

    -25 years? Seriously, this has been happening for a while now.

  16. I feel like this is the second time HnR has used a screencap from the banished season of Community.

    And I totally forgot this was a thing. I think I assumed it was just proposed for some short-term applause, and wouldn’t actually be implemented. Here’s hoping it falls apart.

  17. Butterball turkey commercial: “Are you a turketarian?”

    Libertarian moment?

  18. It also mandates community college systems provide plans for “institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes.”

    So the bill explicitly states that current community college is not good enough, but the whole purpose is to push more people into these colleges and to give the colleges more money before they even demonstrate improvements????? All while basically guaranteeing that costs will increase (by destroying any incentive to compete on cost) and quality will decrease (in order to accommodate unqualified students new sources of revenue)?????

    Can we just buy an island somewhere to get away from this kind of crap?

    1. Can’t we buy an island and put them on it? Is Elba for sale?

    2. Well, if the shit in Europe really hits the fan, maybe the French would be willing to part with Kerguelen. Bit that’s way too cold for my tastes. Unfortunately, all of the tropical/desert isles are occupied.

      1. I’m more of a cold weather guy, so I’ll take it.

      2. I don’t think anyone lives on Bikini. Yet.

  19. Democratic candidates for president are putting their own plans together to try to reduce the debt burdens for students attempting to attend college.

    Free Shit Brigade….FORWARD!

  20. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to make it all free, of course, and make evil corporations pay for it.

    And remember, this is part of the “safety net” that Tony talks about.

  21. No doubt at some point the government will use the leverage that this program will give it to control the curriculum at the community colleges.

    “What? I have to take 100 hours of classes on White Privilege and French Lesbian Poetry of the 15th Century in order to work toward an engineering degree?”

    “Yes, you white male patriarchal cis-hetero shitlord. Shut up and get to the back of the line.”

    1. Who the hell goes to community college to become an engineer?

      1. ^ This guy. But only to transfer cheap credits over to the much more expensive state university.

        1. But only to transfer cheap credits over to the much more expensive state university

          Fair enough. The scenario read to me like the CC was offering the degree. In my experience, CCs tend to be lower on the Gen-Ed fluff anyway.

          1. Incidentally there are some technician type jobs requiring only associate’s degrees, that involve working alongside engineers, and the average pay is more than what you’d make with many types of liberal arts bachelor’s degrees.

      2. Couldn’t say–I was just being sarcastic. But don’t some poorer students use it to get some preliminary stuff out of the way before going to a four year college?

        1. Not necessarily poorer, but wiser. It’s an excellent idea to get that stuff out of the way at a CC. Of course, you’re missing out on the “college experience”. But if you’re the rare 18 year old who is mature enough to not want to go to adult sleep-away camp then you really don’t care about that anyway.

          1. At least in engineering those early semesters are a good way to identify the people you want to be on a team with before the stakes get too high. When you are doling out teams for senior design having history with the other folks that aren’t here to goof off can save you a lot of blood sweat and tears. A lot of people can dress nice and say the right words only to turn out not to pull their weight.

      3. Who the hell goes to community college to become an engineer?

        You can get a very similar level of education at a community college and a large, prestigious university, especially in introductory level courses. Not exactly the same, of course, but very close. The curriculum is all the same, many of the textbooks are going to be the same, and the quality of the instructor a crap shoot anyway. It wouldn’t even surprise me if instructors at community colleges were better teachers, on average, than at four year colleges, especially the big research schools. Once you get to more advanced classes, there might be a real difference in going to a larger school with a faculty that is more current and on the cutting edge of the field, but even then, the difference in the quality of the faculty at Big State U and Super Selective Ivy isn’t going to be that large.

        The biggest factor in determining student success is actually the student. Good students are going to do well and learn their shit anywhere, and the differences in education between different schools are just not that huge. What you do get at, say, Harvard that you may not get at state school is a better professional network. And of course you get the credential of fancy degree. Those things are worthless, but employers are starting to learn that excellent students can be found at any number of schools, and with diverse backgrounds.

        1. You can get a very similar level of education at a community college and a large, prestigious university, especially in introductory level courses.

          I realize that. But how many CCs are handing out 4 year engineering degrees?

        2. By far the best and most useful college class I ever took was College Writing 101 taken at a community college at night

  22. If we enslave the teaching and support staffs, and hold the classes in highway medians – I really think we can get this whole college scam down to nearly free.

  23. I wonder what assumptions went into the calculation of how much this program will cost. For instance, how many students are they assuming and how did they arrive at that figure? Did they consider that if the program is really free (to the students) that more of them will try to get in it? Will there be enough space at community colleges to accommodate them? Having to get in line and wait for five or ten years just to get in will kind of make this whole thing useless.

    1. Will there be enough space at community colleges to accommodate them?

      If they’re smart, they’ll invest in online content delivery. It’s infinitely scalable.

      1. Well, if they’re smart in the sense of wanting to serve the students. Perhaps I’m too cynical but I suspect that at least some of them will avoid that and rather try to get the taxpayers to fund new wings, more teachers, more administrators, etc.

      2. The future of education is a mix of on demand videos, online tutorials, and in person assistance. If we weren’t concerned about creating/keeping jobs, most teachers would be out of work. Apologies to those who taught me, but half were just cashing a paycheck and had no particular skill/desire (tho perhaps crappy kids will drain that out of you). There were a few truly inspirational teachers, those would be great to get on camera, or to retain as mentors either in person or via distance learning.

        It would be a limited investment to do a one time complete math study program that could be done online, and never need to be updated. Science, literature, history are a little more fluid but the core stays the same.

  24. You mean they miscalculated their estimates?…..19/9b3.png

  25. So the government estimates 90 billion… I usually add a zero to their estimates,

    1. Only one zero? I don’t know how you can be so optimistic.

  26. It would be better to give everybody $10000 educational vouchers with no strings attached.

  27. Then obviously we need more rules and regulations

  28. Semi-OT: This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while… What’s the deal with for-profit colleges? The news is full of horror stories about these places. I know it’s been documented that some of them do shady stuff (promising a job paying a certain salary, etc.) and actual fraud should be punished, but I’m just looking for the other side of the story on this.

    Why can’t some entrepreneurs just open a college, implement various cost-cutting measures (such as doing away with the “diversity department”), get accredited, and offer a great education for less money?

    Are there any institutions that do this? If not, what’s stopping them?

  29. Isn’t is axiomatic that if the average person goes to college, or community college, the average curriculum must be that which the average person must pass, and the result will be that the average graduated person will have to end up making the average wage?
    Who is kidding who, education has, because it has been subsidized, been able to avoid modernization, computerization and the electronic revolution, and still remained in business. The Kahn Academy is the model in elementary, secondary and higher education. The classroom is obsolete and labor intensive.
    The new educational systems will eventually be defined by the free market, a function of the selection of the better than average persons and those who desire to employ them.
    The present premise is that college or CC creates a Lake Woebegone product where all the children are above average, and that cannot be done. The only thing which is truly above average is the stupidity and lack of common sense of the program’s sponsors and those foolish enough to support them.

  30. I knew this was coming. While I wanted to believe that Obama’s plan can actually be completed, but I always knew that this is not the right time. To give free college education we need to stabilize our economy first. Unless you want our country to get into a bigger debt hole, no need to hope that there will be free education anytime soon. I really want to believe that this is going to be possible one day, but we need to make sure that only students who can stay off use review services for essay company will be rewarded.

  31. I thought Frank Underwood is not painted from Mr. Obama, but now I see similarities with the law…

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