• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


This Could Go Very Right or Very Wrong

Policy advice as negotiations on free community college enter the home stretch.

September 15, 2021

Over the last few days, a few intrepid folks have unearthed some details on the workings of “free community college” in the big Biden bill. I don’t know how reliable the sources are, but they seem plausible. And they raise the very real possibility that a few separately good ideas could crash into each other in a political compromise and result in something awful.

Different states fund community colleges in different ways. Some use local referenda to approve property tax levies, as in Michigan. Some rely on appropriations from both state and local governments, as in New Jersey. Some rely on state but not local governments, as in Massachusetts. Some states have been relatively generous and kept funding high enough to keep tuition very low, like California. Others, like New Hampshire and Vermont, offer such low funding levels that even community colleges have to charge quite a bit.

For the federal government to bring tuition down to zero across every state, it has to figure out how to manage all those different systems. Pure scholarships for existing tuition levels would do it, but they would effectively reward the stingy states while punishing the generous ones. That’s bad politics. So instead, as Kevin Carey reported, they’re taking a sort of national average (counting each state equally, so California doesn’t drag down the average) of tuition levels, and proposing to pay a set percentage of that. The idea is that the states would pay the rest, and students wouldn’t have to pay at all.

Already, that’s optimistic. The history of Medicare expansion shows clearly that many states will push back on matching funds -- even on very generous terms -- on principle, however misplaced. That potentially limits free community college to certain states. And the very real prospect of near-term shifts in political party control suggests that whatever funding level is established initially will erode over time.

To make matters worse, the national average figures being bandied about would mean that my own state, and many others, won’t receive enough even at the outset to make up lost revenue. Yes, the state could step up its help, but this year was the first time in over a decade that it increased operating funding. If it wanted to be more generous, it would have been.

The likeliest compromise, I suspect, will be to attach asterisks to “free.” By making community college free only under a certain income level, some will argue, they’ll be able to control costs.

Be wary.

It’s a commonplace of policy studies that in America, programs for the poor become poor programs. If we want a program to thrive over time, it needs to be universal. And that isn’t just a cynical political calculation: verifying that the eligible are truly eligible is a deadweight cost for colleges and a significant barrier to low-income students. Part of the “savings” comes from deterring people who really need the help.

So we’d wind up with a program that promises more than it can deliver and then scales back from there. Not great.

Apparently, too, Senator Sanders has introduced language requiring colleges to move a faculty that’s at least 75 percent tenured or tenure track. This, with no new money.

How, exactly, we would cover a massive new increase in labor costs in the absence of new money is not clear. And tenure lasts a lot longer than party control does. Faculty tenured under a relatively generous administration would still have to be paid when party control shifts and federal and/or state appropriations are cut. They’d also still have to be paid after the 2008 baby bust generation turns 18 and enrollments drop across the country. As unfunded mandates go, that’s a doozy.

Finally, as Patrick Brown’s piece in The New York Times recently showed, benefits that don’t look “earned” tend to be more vulnerable to political attack.

If the Biden administration has to water down its proposal to get it through the Senate, I hope that it doesn’t commit the usual mistake of using means testing and restricted eligibility to cut costs. Both of those eviscerate the good a program can do and lead to a sense of betrayal among those who make just a little too much for the program. We’ve seen that movie too many times. And a mandatory, enormous, permanent increase in labor costs needs to come with the funding to make it viable, or not happen at all. The math doesn’t work.

A more politically resilient compromise would include universal eligibility but build in a component by which the benefit is “earned.” For example, a full-tuition scholarship for the second year (credits 31 to 60) contingent on successful completion of the first 30 credits would both reduce costs and satisfy the American cultural imperative to earn a benefit. An earned benefit is much harder to take away; the old Lockean idea that you claim property by mixing your labor with it remains powerful. I floated the idea here a few years ago and offer it freely. There may be better permutations of it; that’s fine. What’s not fine is setting up an underfunded program with a bunch of asterisks and setting it up to fail.

Free community college done right is a fantastic idea. Free community college with asterisks, unstable funding and unfunded mandates for labor costs is not.

Here’s hoping any compromise doesn’t give away the wrong things …


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