State of the Union (SOTU) addresses tend to bring out the grandiosity in presidents—like when President Nixon announced universal health insurance coverage in 1974, or when President Clinton announced universal health insurance coverage in 1994, or when President Obama announced universal health insurance coverage in 2010 that would let Americans "keep their doctor and their plan" and also "reduce costs and premiums." (About that…)
Unsurprisingly, after being routed in the most recent midterms, President Obama used his last SOTU to put together three big, appealing ideas: college, free, and community. Free community college!
The president is now touring the country promoting the plan, calling it "an idea whose time has come." The $60 billion program's time has certainly not come in a Republican-controlled Congress, however, so, as the president's domestic policy advisor Cecilia Muñoz acknowledges, the president will try to gin up support outside of the Capitol in hopes of pressuring lawmakers into getting on board.
As part of the public relations push, eminent comedians Louis CK and Chris Rock appeared in a White House video this week urging Americans to "join the movement" to "make two years of community college as free and universal as high school is today."
Lending their celebrity to a federal education plan contrasts with some of Rock's and Louis' previous musings on government's role in education.
Rock's act circa 1999 included an impassioned, if frequently facetious, rant against public expenditures on education. Back then, he said:
I an't got no kids. Why am I paying school tax? I know some of y'all got kids….I don't care if your kid's in the 10th grade with coloring books. I wear condoms for a reason.
It's worth noting that given Rock's (sadly justified) fear of condemnation from politically correct college campuses, he probably won't be performing for the students at the community colleges whose subsidies he's plugging.
Recently, Louis CK issued a series of tweets on the absurdity of the Common Core State Standards and his opposition to standardized testing regimes. Among them:
My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!
"Why [m]ight you want each picture to stand for more than 1 balloon?" Yet again I must tell my kid "don't answer it. It's a bad question."
As celebrities take time out of their busy schedules to promote the president's community college plan, it's worth also taking time to remember why this is such an ill-conceived idea.
The program, dubbed "America's College Promise," is grandiose in the sense of being pretentious: It's an answer in search of a question. Community college is already affordable. As The Washington Post has noted, existing federal Pell Grants cover more than the average cost of tuition at community college:
The maximum amount of a Pell Grant award today is just under $6,000 a year. Average community college tuition is approximately $4,000, not including the cost of additional fees, books, transportation, food, child care (if applicable) and other expenditures. The president's proposed "America's College Promise" is of no added value to our least privileged students.
Ironically, as noted by Larry Kudlow and John Bachelor on The John Bachelor Show, the president's own SOTU anecdote introducing "America's College Promise" implicitly acknowledged that community college is already an affordable option. The heartwarming story of Ben and Rebekah Erler making it in America was one of self-reliance. In Obama's words:
Rebekah took out student loans and enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. "It is amazing," Rebekah wrote, "what you can bounce back from when you have to…We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."
Apparently, the president's current publicity tour "will highlight existing programs providing free community college." Yes, he wants to create more such programs, but again, with Pell Grants in existence, it's unclear what remains to be done.
Not only is the plan unnecessary, but it is also likely to be counterproductive. As with federal loans for four-year colleges and graduate schools, the promise of a tuition subsidy per head predictably incentivizes institutions to raise tuition.
Why? Because schools that can fill classes pre-subsidy know they'll be able to fill them at higher prices post-subsidy. As Scott Shackford has previously noted for Reason, the plan's own quality control requirements will also likely increase the size of already bloated administrative offices at community colleges. The cost of staffing and running those offices will then consume a huge chunk of the subsidized tuition revenues they'll now be receiving. Shackford wrote:
Ultimately what will happen is that the subsidies will be consumed by this bloat and community colleges will not be able to expand to actually accommodate additional students, so we'll see more students being forced to wait, or tuition costs will quickly rise above the administration's subsidy (which doesn't seem to have a cap, but obviously is going to have to or god help us all) in order to get more money to actually pay for the classes the students need. This is exactly what's happening at four-year colleges already.
Though Obama rolled out the comedians, if his plan succeeds, community college administrators will have the last laugh at our expense.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.