Barack Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition, unveiled a year ago, has elevated the cost of higher education as an election-year issue for Democrats. But the president’s plan itself is mostly a waste of tax dollars, according to a new report.
The Obama plan, which would cost the federal government an estimated $60 billion over 10 years, with states picking up as much as $20 billion in additional costs, targets community colleges and is designed, the White House says, to make the first two years of postsecondary education “as free and universal as high school.”
But more than half the funding for the program would go to students unlikely to graduate or attain a certification, according to the American Action Forum, a center-right Washington think tank.
In a report released Wednesday, the AAF said the president’s proposal encourages students to enroll in higher education institutions with the highest attrition rates and lowest potential payoffs in terms of jobs and wages.
“Community college participants … represent the largest group of students who begin college but never complete a degree. Some estimate that 48.8 percent of all students at two-year public community colleges have not completed a degree and are not enrolled at another institution 6 years later. As a sector, these students also have the highest tendency to default on their federal student loan debt,” the report’s authors write.
“Only $32 billion of the $80 billion combined federal and state investment for President Obama’s proposed free college program would result in a degree or credential. The majority — $48 billion — would be a loss.”
Low standards for high school graduation lead to more than half of community college students entering remedial courses, but only one in ten of these students is likely to graduate, according to a separate study by the advocacy group Complete College America.
The AAF’s skepticism is shared among Republicans on Capitol Hill, where neither the Senate nor the House has acted on the president’s call, which Obama is likely to renew next week when he visits Congress on Tuesday to give his final State of the Union address.
An expanded and more expensive version of the president’s proposal, the America’s College Promise Act — an additional $10 billion was tacked on for minority schools — co-sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., in the House and Sen. Tammy Balwin, D-Wisc., in the Senate, is stalled in the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.
But while the president’s proposal has been ignored by the Republicans who control Congress, the issue of college affordability has become a major issue for Democrats, especially those on the presidential campaign trail.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has gone even further than Obama, calling for free tuition at public four-year universities, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have pitched proposals for “debt-free” college for students.
At last month’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Sanders said, “We should look at college today the way high school was looked at 60 years ago. All young people who have the ability should be able to get a college education.”
Clinton, at the same debate, said students who can afford to pay tuition should.
“I don’t believe in free tuition for everybody. I believe we should focus on middle-class families, working families and poor kids who have the ambition and the talent to go to college and get ahead,” she said.
Clinton and O’Malley have pledged to make college more affordable with programs that would expand part-time job opportunities for students with programs designed to encourage universities to cut tuition costs.