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When ‘Free’ Costs Real Money

California has a very affordable community college program. Annual tuition can cost students less than $1,500 a year. You’re actually likely to spend more on books than on classes, which is part of the reason California struggles with accommodating all of the students who want to attend community college. In 2012, California reported having 470,000 students on community college waiting lists. The inability to provide enough classes was blamed on budget cuts, not on its economic model. The state did raise tuition rates, though, from $20 a unit to $46 a unit. You cannot look at California’s community college system and conclude that subjecting all community college students even further to the vicissitudes of government spending commitments is a good idea. Yet, this is exactly what President Barack Obama is proposing. The president’s “America’s College Promise” proposal would provide “free” – as in subsidized by federal and state governments – community college educations.  Right off the bat the program is a huge incentive for further grade inflation for colleges. It is important to understand that the free money getting tossed around is going to college faculty and administrators, not to students. It’s not the students being subsidized, it’s the college. So community colleges are going to do everything in their power to keep these students attending, and maximizing the money flow, even if it results in students leaving college with associate degrees they can barely read, which will subsequently devalue the degrees in the eyes of employers. Even in an era of grade inflation, community colleges have terrible completion rates for students seeking two-year degrees. The Chronicle of Higher Education found completion rates lower than 10 percent in states like Indiana and Rhode Island after three years of attendance. California’s rate is 25.3 percent. But to be clear, having a low completion rate over three years shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a criticism of the community college system. What community colleges allow is the ability for people who cannot commit (for a variety of financial or personal reasons) to a traditional education model to nevertheless advance their educations. They may take a few classes and drop out because they have to prioritize other parts of their life. Maybe they’ll come back in time. Maybe not. Sometimes it’s a money issue, but not always. In fact, the White House acknowledges that community colleges already “offer students affordable tuition, open admission policies and convenient locations. They are particularly important for students who are older, working, need remedial classes, or can only take classes part-time.” If the Obama administration’s position is that community colleges are accessible and affordable, why is this program needed at all?  The White House says the program would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years, but also states that 9 million students would “save” $3,800 a year. That puts the cost at $34 billion per year, split between the federal government and states that participate. Community college presidents across the country are drooling at the possible cash infusion. The blame for the skyrocketing costs of attending college has been laid squarely at the feet of bloating administrative staff in higher education. One study by the Delta Cost Project, which analyzes college spending, found administrative staff increases led to a 28 percent boom in the higher education workforce, even in the middle of the recession. Community colleges actually lost both part-time and full-time faculty members during the recession, but nevertheless gained an average of three administrative positions per 1,000 students.  The president’s free community college proposal also calls for more institutional reforms and support programs, which sound great with little context, but those are the kind of “reforms” that have led to this massive growth in administrators rather than educators. Ultimately, the proposed subsidies will be consumed by this administrative bloat and community colleges will not be able to actually accommodate additional students, so we’ll see more students being forced to wait, or tuition costs will have to quickly rise above the administration’s subsidy (which doesn’t seem to have a cap, but obviously is going to need one) in order to get more money to actually pay for the classes the students need. Scott Shackford is associate editor of Reason magazine, a libertarian monthly in Los Angeles covering politics and culture.

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