Biden Brings Back Plan for Free Community College

This is a subsidy for the schools, not the students.


In tonight's address to Congress President Joe Biden is expected to announce a $1.8 trillion spending plan that includes two years of free community college.

The plan, according to the White House's fact sheet, is for $109 billion to pay for free college, $80 billion for expanding Pell grants that will reduce the need for low-income students to take out loans, an additional $62 billion to focus on retention and to try to improve completion rates at community colleges.

Biden is essentially resurrecting a proposal from President Barack Obama's administration, one that is popular in education quarters. That's in part because, really, it ends up serving as a subsidy of college staff, not students.

In reality, community college in America is already extremely accessible and affordable for low-income students. The average student who takes advantage of existing grants and scholarship programs can already attend two years of community college for free, based on 2020 college pricing data.

But the problem is that community colleges have an egregiously bad completion rate. Only about 40 percent of community college students complete their education within six years, the lowest completion rate of all types of colleges in the United States.

The Obama administration's plan for free community college came with a list of strings attached that mandated institutional reforms and student support programs. This caused the price tag of Obama's plan to balloon from $60 billion to $90 billion. It's also why I characterized it as a subsidy for colleges, particularly college administrators, rather than students. It was designed purposefully to increase community college spending.

Biden's price tag is even higher, and it does include some of the same ideas as Obama's proposal. His plan for improving student retention is heavy on developing costly administrative support structures: "States, territories, and Tribes will receive grants to provide funding to colleges that adopt innovative, proven solutions for student success, including wraparound services ranging from child care and mental health services to faculty and peer mentoring; emergency basic needs grants; practices that recruit and retain diverse faculty; transfer agreements between colleges; and evidence-based remediation programs."

Biden's free tuition won't be means tested. This is about getting butts in community college seats, as enrollment has seen a massive decline partly connected to the pandemic. Fall enrollment at community college dropped 10 percent over 2019. The drop among students attending college for the first time was even more severe, 21 percent. By comparison, four-year schools only saw a 1 percent drop. The Hechinger Report notes that these low-income students who attended community colleges were the ones who were often hardest hit by the economic effects of the pandemic shutdowns. So while there were financial hardship reasons for the enrollment decline, tuition and fees are not as big a culprit as a pandemic-driven economic crisis.

This proposal will spark a lot of discussion about the role community colleges play in occupational training and statistics on how many jobs "require" a post-secondary degree or special certification. But will any of that discussion focus on how much of this certification is mandated by onerous government occupational licensing demands that may not actually be necessary? We should all at least acknowledge when government spending is offering a "solution" to problems caused by government mandates.

For what it's worth, the Obama administration did at least make note that unneeded occupational licensing requires extensive hours of training and can cost thousands of dollars. But then, almost comically, his administration also proposed funding the development of new types of credentialing systems that would direct people toward community colleges that had received government grants.

While community colleges are valuable tools to improve access to higher education for low-income students (full disclosure: I got an associate's degree from a community college before transitioning to a four-year school for my bachelor's degree), directing billions of dollars in subsidies to an already-affordable college system with such a high rate of baked-in failure seems like pork, not an investment.