President Obama last week unveiled an ambitious plan to send everyone to two-year colleges for free, saying that going to school on the government’s dime should be an option for “everybody who’s willing to work for it.”
The administration initially refused to attach a cost estimate to such a plan, before reversing itself late Friday and offering a figure: $60 billion over 10 years. For now, that’s as much information as the president is willing to share, although his federal budget proposal, due in February, is expected to offer more detailed information.
Obama announced his free-school idea at a community college in Tennessee, whose state-level free-tuition program for high school seniors provided the blueprint for the White House’s version.
Under the president’s plan — called “America’s College Promise” — half-time students who are making “steady progress” toward a degree would receive two years of free school at a community college, so long as they maintain grade point averages of 2.5 or better.
In order for the plan to be available to students in a given state, that state would have to accept the yoke of federal match money.
“Obama is proposing a split responsibility between states and the federal government in which the feds offer 75 percent of the money to send students to community colleges, while the states put up the rest,” National Journal reported. “The design is, in part, a nod to states, which run the public college system, but it also could be read by some Republicans as a federal intrusion into states’ turf.”
States have varying degrees of success of prioritizing workforce development through their two-year college systems — and funding those programs through varying combinations of state funds and federal dollars. But the Obama administration’s plan doesn’t yet suggest a way for the federal government to cough up its 75 percent share — except, as National journal put it, “to ask Congress for the money.”
Critics instantly compared the plan to the existing federal student loan bubble, which they argue has done more to aggrandize universities and drive up tuition costs than help students afford to go to school. And it introduces some potential new problems.
“If [under the new proposal] a student falls into the extremely high drop-out rate for students, the government (and the taxpayers) don’t get the money back,” Reason’s Scott Shackford wrote Friday. “So the White House is promoting a program funded by taxpayers to subsidize — wait, I mean further subsidize — a system that has baked in an extremely high failure rate.
“[T]his program is not a subsidy for students. It’s a subsidy for faculty and college level administrative bloat… Community college presidents across the country are drooling.”
And then there’s the cost: $60 billion over 10 years, according to the White House. But before the president coughed up that figure, several media outlets had extrapolated, from Obama’s own promotional rhetoric, how much the plan is likely to cost: Try $34 billion per year.
“[T]he president’s announcement said that the plan could benefit as many as nine million students who could save an average of $3,800 per year,” The Weekly Standard wrote. “This would put the total cost at a little more than $34 billion… At $34 billion per year, taxpayers at least will be working for it, willing or not.”