• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Remember the Purpose

Means testing and missing the point.

September 28, 2021

As we head into the season of fiscal brinksmanship at the federal level, I’ve been trying to follow the permutations of free community college. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote,

“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.”

On Monday, Jarrett Renshaw of Reuters tweeted,

“Sources tell me that White House and Democrats considering attaching means test to a number of key agenda items - from EV rebates and free community college - as a way to shrink reconciliation bill and pacify spending hawks.”

It feels like a scene from a horror movie in which the corpse’s hand reaches up from the grave. Or, more accurately, it feels like that scene from the fourth sequel in a series of horror movies -- a terrible undead idea keeps returning.

Means testing for free community college doesn’t merely exclude the wealthy. It builds in an inflation penalty, it annoys people who make just slightly “too much” (which, in some parts of country, isn’t much at all) and it introduces tremendous deadweight costs in administrative overhead. That overhead works as a deterrent -- some people who would be eligible if they applied decide not to apply because it’s too much of a headache. If pressed, the people who advocate means testing will sometimes admit that the “time tax” (hat tip to Annie Lowrey) is designed specifically to keep the cost of the program down. Make the tuition waiver too hard to get, and you don’t have to cover as many of them.

Over time, though, that feeds understandable frustration among those who could really use the help but don’t get it. That frustration sometimes expresses itself in unhelpful ways, putting programs and colleges in political jeopardy.

The point of free community college is to establish higher education as a public good, just like high school is. That’s hardly a new idea; CUNY was free until the 1970s. Treating “free” as a handout to be given only to the “deserving” gets the purpose wrong. It misses the point.

(The point-missing is even more striking in the case of electric vehicles. Does carbon emitted by higher-income people’s cars not count?)

The danger in missing the point is that once free community college starts to look like another broken promise, it will be a very long time before there’s a political opening to try again to get it right. If they set the threshold at, say, Pell eligibility, then they will immediately exclude a majority of the students here. Some fear the system and don’t apply; others make just slightly too much on a national scale, but nowhere near enough to be secure here. Tell them they’re too rich, and you’ve made enemies for life.

We’ve fallen into this trap before. I know time is short, but as long as nothing has been signed yet, there’s hope. Let the undead idea of means testing finally die so we can actually fulfill the promise of free community college. The movie is still being written; we still have time to improve the ending.


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