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.