College

Biden Brings Back Plan for Free Community College

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

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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.

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  1. We don’t need a taxpayer funded giveaway/subsidy for unions.

    1. Well, somebody has to pay for those 80 million votes.

      1. Disaffected, education-disdaining, anti-government cranks are among my favorite culture war casualties.

        1. If by education you mean political ‘science’, psychology, gender studies, ethnic studies, English literature of the 21st century, film appreciation, or journalism – Starbuck’s is hiring.
          Check out the staff at any community college. They are all Democrat except the quiet ones teaching Chemistry or auto shop.

          1. Liberal arts teaches critical thinking which no employer wants.

            1. Lucky for those employers that only a relative handful of homeschoolers are getting that sort of education.

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    2. 1) They have to do something with the people not employable for $15 an hour. This is the first of many delaying tactics.

      2) Expect to see the number of suicides among community college teachers in the humanities skyrocket. The business and CS departments will be fine.

      3) Where is the love for the trade unions, Biden? Hard to drive young people to apprenticeships when they can sit on their ass playing video games for 2 more years denying reality. Or is that in the next 2 trillion?

    3. Do many community colleges have faculty unions? Honest question. I went to one and most of my instructors were part-time and non-unionized

      I am very pro-community college. Based on my experience, they are a tremendous value and largely free of of the toxic political culture that infect universities.

      1. Nowadays most community college faculty are part time/adjunct too, probably more so. And they don’t pay well.

      2. Tenured, yes = unionized. I also taught P/T at the community college level.

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  2. In other words, he’s giving those who couldn’t master basic skills in high school another bite of the apple. Because this time around they’ll actually learn something.

    1. True. I taught at a large urban HS and our county run community colleges were always referred to as 13th grade. BTW not just by students but also counselors and admin.

  3. So Community College is the new euphemism for reeducation camps?

    1. I worked with Portland Community College from 2001-2005. The euphemism isn’t new.

      1. What did you do for the judge to have made that part of your sentence?

  4. How else are kids supposed to get their hair-braiding certifications and their flower-arranging certifications and their dog-shampooing certifications?

  5. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the concept of free Community college, this sentence makes no sense whatsoever :

    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.

    What is this even supposed to mean? If the culprit is “a pandemic-driven economic crisis” — having to pay tuition and fees are becomes a burden/difficult.

    During an economic crisis, one would not walk away from comm. college if it were free of costs. In fact, the opposite….during an economic crisis where work and funds are short, the best thing to do would be to take advantage of free education since you have free time and limited resources.

    Shackford is trying to pretend that two things that are inherently tied together (the ability to pay tuition and fees is directly impacted by someone going through an economic crisis) are somehow distinct and not related.

  6. College professors are reliable Democrat voters. Got to reward your voters.

  7. 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.

    I bet the 60% who don’t complete their community college degrees have a greater chance of becoming productive members of society than the people who stay at a university the longest and complete the most degrees.

  8. This will further erode the quality of education. Students don’t demand excellence because they’re not paying for it, and so feel they have no right to complain. And the teachers are working for the government not the students, so have no obligation to provide a high quality service. In fact the worse they do, the more the administration bureaucrats give them and their peers nearly automatic funding for remediation. Also expect mental illness propaganda to proliferate, further debilitating students.

  9. You are free to get a substandard education.

  10. (full disclosure: I got an associate’s degree from a community college before transitioning to a four-year school for my bachelor’s degree)

    Me too, Shack.

    Here’s the thing – the people who aren’t serious about it leave after a semester rather than paying for it. With Biden, they won’t have to. This (once again) hits the serious students, in a race to the bottom.

  11. Think of the savings if one couldn’t get into a Bachelor program until one completed an Associate degree in community college. Do the Associate route to figure out what your major is going to be. Lots less brick and mortar wasted on dorms (community colleges are pretty much commuter schools) at the Bachelor program schools if the college bound herd is culled during 1st and 2nd year. Many, if not a majority, of 4 year colleges would close and the professors could be introduced to real world jobs.

  12. $109 billion to pay for free college

    Please tell me I’m not the only who finds this phrase ridiculous. I wish there were someway I could make a universal auto-correct to change “free” to “taxpayer funded” whenever people start talking about “free” education. Or healthcare. Or whatever the government is promising will be “free”.

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