Obama keeps puffing on the horn of taxpayer plenty, this time proposing free tuition at community colleges for all comers. This is a misapplication of the empirical observation that earned income is positively related to the level of education.
Supporters of “college for all” naively assume that enabling college enrollment will always translate into actual learning and success on the job market, or that college is always a good idea. Those assumptions are incorrect. Not everyone is capable of benefitting from higher education. It is a disfavor to them, and to their more academically competitive peers, to encourage them to enter an environment in which they are likely to fail or benefit less than in other pursuits, and where they will absorb scarce educational resources such as facilities, equipment, and instructor time and effort. And if less capable individuals are allowed to “succeed” under more relaxed standards, the degrees they earn will be degraded. Moreover, as Peter Theil has emphasized, we tend to think “too highly of higher eduction,” as if it is always one’s best option. In fact, that may not be true for even the most talented individuals, who may be capable of accomplishing greater things without it, and sooner!
But what real costs and benefits can be expected from Obama’s latest proposed giveaway? Scott Shakford at Reason summarizes and critiques the program, explaining that community college administrators are likely to be the chief beneficiaries. Shakford also notes that the program is likely to encourage grade inflation, based on the minimum GPA requirements built into the program. This op-ed in the Digital Journal points out that Obama’s plan will also encourage grade inflation at the high-school level, so as not to “unfairly” deny students their new opportunity to matriculate into community college.
Shakford at Reason puts the total cost to taxpayers at $34 billion, but it is based on an administration estimate that 9 million students could attend community college free-of-charge. It is not clear whether that number is net of those already attending for free. Tyler Cowen offers links to some good discussions of the plan, one of which notes that community college is already free on average for low income students via Pell grants. Higher income students obviously stand to gain, however, so the plan’s targeting of benefits is perverse. Community college completion rates are already quite low, and Cowen notes that the rate for marginal students pulled in by Obama’s program is likely to be even lower, which would further diminish the value of the degree on the labor market.
“Free stuff” always sounds so good and well-intentioned that is it difficult for many to oppose. But free stuff generally means that resources must be diverted from more highly-valued uses for little or no gain. After all, the value of the freebie to beneficiaries of a politician’s scheme can be minimal and they’ll still be takers. Taxes to fund the diversion of resources creates other perverse incentives.
Funding the education of promising but needy students may be quite worthwhile, but offering a free post-secondary education for all will grossly misallocate resources and carry a high social cost.