How Much Is Too Much? President Obama Pledges To Further Subsidize Community College

Kevin Glass
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Posted: Jan 09, 2015 1:47 PM
How Much Is Too Much? President Obama Pledges To Further Subsidize Community College

A consistent policy goal for President Obama during his presidency is to push more Americans into college education - and particularly the traditional bundled higher ed model represented by two- and four-year colleges. It's unclear if his proposals have done much good to address the problems in the American higher education system.

President Obama has in particular long been enamored of sending more Americans to community college. In a piece for Townhall Magazine, I addressed why that's a bad idea:

Four-year colleges are the easiest culprit to point to here, and Obama has pushed for increased utilization of community colleges and associates’ programs to alleviate the crisis in higher education. Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, tells Townhall that’s not the right policy solution.

“One of the things you usually hear in this debate is that community colleges are a better option because they’re cheaper, which they almost always are, to the consumer, out-of-pocket… But the completion rates at those colleges are often very low. It’s cheap to the consumer but it’s really expensive to the taxpayer on a per-outcome basis.”

Like bachelor’s programs, many community colleges encourage experimentation from students, allowing them to spend time taking broad-based courses that don’t contribute a whole lot to their educational goals. “There’s an emerging thinking,” Kelly says, “that students in the two-year sector need more structured programs that give them a starting point, an endpoint, and a clear mapping from where you start to where you finish.”

Unfortunately, President Obama wants to send a wave of students to community colleges without actually addressing the problems that two-year associates' programs often have themselves.

This comes after President Obama has already massively subsidized the attendance of community colleges. The Pell Grant program, which provides college financial aid to prospective students, has more than tripled in the Obama era due to eligibility and generosity expansions. We used to spend less than $10 billion per year on the program - now that's up over $30 billion per year, according to the CBO, and that's not coming down any time soon:

Guess where the plurality of those pell grants have gone? That's right: community colleges:

While it's obviously unclear exactly what President Obama's "free" proposal entails - a seven-second video announcement isn't much to go on - but Jeryl Bier of the Weekly Standard reports that it could be in the neighborhood of $34 billion per year.

In light of how President Obama has been attempting to expand federal money for community college already, to the tune of dozens of billions of dollars per year, one might have to ask him what he thinks the optimal level of federal subsidies for college is?

We already massively subsidize college, and President Obama has already turned on the spigot of federal funds for community college during his presidency. It's hard to see how he might think that throwing more money at the problem is going to improve the situation.