Six Things Obama Didn't Tell You About His "Free" College Tuition Plan

Conn Carroll
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Posted: Jan 09, 2015 4:00 PM
Six Things Obama Didn't Tell You About His "Free" College Tuition Plan

Previewing yet another item on his 2015 State of the Union Friday, President Obama announced a new plan to make community college tuition "free."

"Today I'm announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of community college tuition in America," Obama said. "I wanna bring it down to zero. I wanna make it free." 

Obama may have spoken for over half-an-hour in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was joined by both Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), but he left out a few details about his new program: 

1) It Isn't Free
Obama may have sold his plan as "free" college tuition, but it isn't free to students and it definitely isn't free to taxpayers. First, Obama's plan will only cover "three-qarters of the average cost of community college." States are expected to pick up the tab for the remaining 25 percent. But even then, the program will only cover the "average cost" of tuition. Many students who go to schools with higher tuitions will still be on the hook for money.

Second, nothing is ever free for taxpayers. On Air Force One today, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz confirmed that the program will cost at least $60 billion over ten years.

2) It Will Drown Community Colleges In Red Tape
"There are no free rides in America," Obama insisted today. And he's right. Nothing is ever really free. "Colleges would to do their part by offering high quality academics and helping students actually graduate," Obama continued. "States would have to do their part to. This isn't a blank check. It is not a free lunch."

All this accountability may sound great in a political speech, but in real life what it all translates to is tons of paperwork and red tape for states and schools. If you loved the federalization of elementary education through No Child Left Behind, and all the millions of hours of paperwork that came with it, then you'll love Obama's plan to federalize community colleges.

3) Too Many High School Students Aren't Prepared For Community College
Too many high schools are already failing to prepare their graduates for college and making community college as universal as high school, which is what Obama said the goal of his new plan was, would only make the situation worse. 

2004 study found that not only did 68 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course, but of those that did take remedial courses, they had to take 2.9 of them. All Obama's plan would really do is create nationally funded 6-year high schools.

4) Community College's Have A Poor Track Record
If community colleges had a strong track record of taking unprepared or financially strained students through graduation and onto four-year institutions, then maybe Obama's plan might begin to make some sense. But the simple fact is that they don't.

Less than 20 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their two-year degrees in three years. And of the only 20 percent of community college students who do transfer to four-year institutions, only 72 percent of them will finish or still be in school after another four years.

5) "Free" Tuition Will Drive Up Costs
No government spending program exists in a vacuum. If the government subsidizes the price of a service, then the price of that service will go up. Which is exactly what has happened to the price of four-year college tuition since the federal government has been ramping up their grant and loan-guarantee spending.

6) Government Spending Crowds Out Private Sector Solutions
Not only will government subsidized tuition at public community colleges drive up the price of tuition at those colleges, but it will also crowd out private sector solutions. The Manhattan Institute's Judah Bellin explains:

Furthermore, the for-profit industry has proven to be successful for many students who enroll in short-term programs. Students at for-profits are more likely to obtain certificates and associate's degrees, which typically take one or two years to complete, than students who begin these programs at community colleges. And after their first year, they are more likely to stay in such programs and less likely to need to take remedial courses than their community-college peers. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provides even more promising news. In 2007, among students attending two-year colleges, those who attended private, for-profit schools had a six-year completion rate of 62%, whereas their peers at community colleges and private non-profits had completion rates of 40% and 53%, respectively.