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Blue Model Blues
Obama Doubles Down on Free Community College

With his second term waning, and with college affordability emerging as an increasingly important issue in the Democratic primary, President Obama is redoubling his push for the free community college initiative he unveiled at this year’s State of the Union. The president traveled to Michigan yesterday to rally support for the $70 billion program and announce the creation of a new College Promise Advisory Board, led by Second Lady Jill Biden. The Detroit Free Press reports:

Giving students two years of free community college is simply an extension of America’s historical emphasis on the importance of education, President Barack Obama told a crowd of about 1,000 at Macomb Community College.

Referencing previous federal efforts to increase educational opportunities for Americans, including the GI Bill, Obama tried to reinvigorate his plan to give at least two years of free community college to students who maintain a high grade point average.

Accompanied by Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden and herself a community college professor, Obama announced an independent College Promise Advisory Board, led by Biden, that will highlight existing programs providing free community college. The board will try to recruit more states and communities to do likewise and will also enlist celebrities in a public awareness campaign to press for tuition-free community college.

President Obama’s position is relatively moderate in the context of current presidential primary politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed making community college and four-year public colleges entirely taxpayer-funded. Hillary Clinton has endorsed Obama’s free community college plan, as well as putting forward a $350 billion debt-free tuition plan of her own.

All of these initiatives, however, are typical of blue model thinking: They represent misguided efforts to double down on an existing system that worked in the past, but works less well today—rather than shooting for something more suited to the modern labor market and economic landscape.

Community college completion rates are extremely low. Just a quarter of people who enroll in a community college class today will have a degree in the next five years, and many enrollees require remedial coursework. There is little reason to think that pouring even more government funds into a system that allows so many students to fall through the cracks will be particularly effective. Moreover, there is the problem of diminishing returns: Since 44 percent of the population already earns an associate or a bachelor’s degree, it’s likely that the remaining 56 percent would probably benefit less from an associate degree, even though it is just as expensive to get them one. In short, as we wrote in April, the president’s community college plan “spend[s] money we don’t have offering programs that are unlikely to work very well for people whom the educational system has already failed to reach for 12 years.”

Another element of the agenda the president pitched in Michigan, however, looks more promising:

He also announced $175 million in Department of Labor grants across the country to help with apprenticeships, with awards going to 46 organizations, institutions and businesses pledging to train workers in health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing and more.

On-the-job training programs are probably a better use of resources for many (though, of course, not all) of the students who would be affected by Obama’s free community college plan. Further credentialing is not always the answer; apprenticeship programs focused narrowly on career development can serve many students well, creating a path to good jobs for young Americans who aren’t interested in spending years on a college campus. To be sure, a German-style apprenticeship model, for example, probably can’t work as well here as it does in Europe, but exploring new vocational tracks and models could help spark initiatives that do work here. Local, state, and federal policymakers should be focused on this kind of experimentation, rather than on rearguard actions to prop up an old and inefficient system.

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  • johngbarker

    What! I am shocked. My state has been promoting a college prep curriculum for all and to think it may be 44% or less effective is unbelievable. I wonder what went wrong.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I think there is already way too much Government Monopoly in education, and it is responsible for both the massive college loan debt, as well as the declining educational achievements of public school students.

  • hol smor

    “If education is free more people might finish college and they would vote democratic. That’s not good” -Karl Rove

    • Dale Fayda

      List the source of the quote, please.

  • stan

    Free stuff for all. Vote for us. Corrupt to the core, economically damaging, and loved by Democrats.

  • Episteme

    To be fair, part of the reason that you have such a low completion rate for community colleges is that they serve multiple purposes, including where non-degree students take a class or two for a given certification or such – I’m a graduate student who’s technically also registered (without any completed associate’s) at the local community college as part of an outside management certification program. That sort of thing might be the different of a 25% versus 35-40% rate, but still it’s a piece of the puzzle.

    Beyond the cost structure, the peril behind this sort of “free college” program remains in how the expectation of universal degrees (I’ve referred to it being effectively 13th-14th grade or 13th-16th grade) will effect the Certification Mentality that’s already destroyed the ability of two generations of academicallt-trained Americans to get entry-level jobs, now broadened to all Americans. In both America and Europe, the loss of pensions and later retirements (as necessary as those are) are keeping older workers in their jobs longer and trickling down a lack of promotions. As a result, there aren’t openings for new hires. In Europe, we see massive youth unemployment (and large general unemployment as well). In America, we mask that number by having more young people in college and graduate school longer, supported by a sweet-tooth system of student loans (other nations either weed out some students into vocational paths during secondary school or else try to move the tertiary school path more quickly). Even, beyond that, more and more twenty-somethings and even thirty-somethings are faced with unpaid internships and a call for needing advanced degrees for work that even fifteen years ago was available straight out of undergraduate if not high school. The increasing technical expertise needed in blue collar fields adds to this problem.

    By subsidizing college (and so creating the expectation that students will go), it will be similar to when secondary school became broad-based to the point of a full expectation (how many jobs are out there, even the most basic labor job, for someone without a diploma or GED?). Coupled with the rise in minimum wage, workers with degrees in a workforce that already has such reduced work participation are going to be expected to attend schools that are now increasingly-overcrowded and so increasingly-unstaffed and irrelevant for actual educational value. However, especially as the heathy Baby Boomers remain in the workforce for a decade or more additionally-than-expected, these young people are going to be basically stored there to bide time – only to be released into a workforce that’s now demanding ever-higher certification requirements as a sorting mechanism to differentiate between a crowd that all have at least basic degrees. In the meanwhile, there’s not going to be a logical stopping point: if the market now demands graduate degrees and the government is subsidizing tax-payer funded undergraduate education in a market where there aren’t any entry-level jobs for those former students…well…

    (But, I agree with the point on the apprenticeship aspect – if anything is being supported, it should be things that actually lead into entry-level work, not more roadblocks to that)

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