Should Two Year Colleges Be Free?

Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).


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