From The Dallas Morning News editorial board:
We’re usually cautious about big government programs, so we like to check our skepticism against other sources. In the case of President Joe Biden’s plan to offer two years of free community college, we’re encouraged to see that even some in the academic community have misgivings.
According to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some education experts caution that, “it could end up hurting disadvantaged students by diverting them to colleges where they’re less likely to succeed, and that it could provide free tuition to those who can already afford it.”
Biden’s plan would spend $109 billion over 10 years on community college tuition. It is part of his larger proposal called the American Families Plan which carries a price tag of $1.8 trillion. One study, offered by the University of Pennsylvania, said the real cost of the plan would be more like $2.5 trillion. Even at that price, this plan is scaled down from Biden’s campaign promise of covering tuition for most students at public four-year colleges.
We agree with the president that Americans could use help paying for college. According to the College Board, one year of instruction at a public four-year university has risen 278% since 1990. The cost of college has been spiraling out of control, even as the importance of a postsecondary degree rises with it. According to a report by former Commerce Department economist Robert Shapiro, inflation-adjusted median annual earnings for college graduates increased by 20.6% between 1980 and 2020. For high school graduates, they shrank by 6.2%.
But we, along with the experts cited by the Chronicle, aren’t convinced that Biden’s plan is the best solution to that problem.
First, free community college is already a reality for many Americans. Seventeen states provide tuition-free community college programs for eligible students, though Texas is not one of them. According to College Promise, there are 368 free-college programs in the country.
In 2015-16, 35.9% of students at two-year public colleges paid no tuition or fees after financial aid, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Just over 56% paid between $1 and $4,000. And 7.7% paid more than $4,000.
For some students, community colleges can be academic dead ends. According to the Chronicle, about 80% of entering freshmen at community colleges say they plan to earn a bachelor’s degree, but fewer than 15% end up with one. Giving American students incentive not to start their education at a four-year institution could very well have the effect of stunting the very pursuit it seeks to promote.
Loni Bordoloi Pazich of the Teagle Foundation, told the Chronicle, “If the goal is just access, we pretty much have that already. … But if the goal is access to a bachelor’s degree, free community college is not the way to do that.”
We’re fans of programs like Dallas County Promise that provide financial incentives and wrap-around services for students who may not otherwise have access to higher education. And we could support expansion of Pell Grants or other targeted programs. But so far the Biden administration hasn’t put forward a working plan for universal community college that’s worth the price.