What a shame, and what a missed opportunity. President Obama’s “America’s College Promise,” which would offer two years of free community college to eligible students, falls short of the mark in so many ways. And yet, the idea of strengthening and rebuilding the American middle class via promoting educational attainment not only has promise but, if done properly, is both politically and economically feasible.
Given that Republicans control Congress and the White House budget is certainly going to be dead on arrival, the President could be forgiven for making proposals in his State of the Union address that are less trial balloons than gaudy kites launched to impress his base (and then be quickly forgotten). But the President was on target, for the second straight year, in saying that the American middle class is suffering. The median household income fell from $53,537 in 2008 to $52,250 in 2013. And although median income has since risen, the increases are modest.
While education is a (if not the) key route to acquiring employment that provides a middle class income, supporting educational attainment is but one of the ways of supporting the middle class. The modern American Middle class that we speak about, and wish to maintain, was the product of the GI Bill of 1944. The GI Bill offered soldiers returning from World War II access not only to education but also, crucially, to home ownership.
Higher education, even in the form of the shorter community college degree is not for everyone—for a variety of reasons. The GI Bill still propelled those veterans who opted against pursuing higher education into the middle class by enabling them to purchase homes. Home acquisition and the flood of purchases associated with home ownership were a giant stimulus to the economy, which in turn led to well-paying jobs for the veterans who chose not to enroll in college or university.
A second shortfall of “America’s College Promise” is that its support is limited to community college students. Yes, community colleges are much more accessible for high school graduates and considerably more affordable than four-year institutions. But the return on investment for a community college education is modest. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics the median income of a high school graduate aged 25 to 34 years old who works full time was nearly $30,000 in 2012. For an adult with an associate’s degree, the median income was $35,720. A college graduate 25 to 34 years of age working full time earned just under $50,000. Notably, the median wage for community college graduates fell in the last few years while the median wage for a bachelor’s degree-holder increased. This is a sign that even community college education will not be enough to launch many graduates into jobs that pay a middle-class wage.
Aside from the fact that “America’s College Promise” is too limited in its scope, the most obvious shortcoming is that, as yet, there is neither a cost estimate for the program nor a mechanism to pay for the free tuition. That is a true shame because it is not enormously difficult to figure out how to offer a federal tuition and housing support program without resorting to rounding up the usual suspects—i.e. taxing the rich.
I have discussed my own proposal for a “Futures Account” in my book The Third Lie (Left Coast Press, 2011) and in the pages of The American Interest (July/August 2014). The proposal itself is simple—every American child (citizen or documented) receives access to a “Futures Account” upon reaching age 18. The account can be used solely for education beyond high school and/or a home purchase. The amount each young adult would have access to would be $53,000—about the cost of one year’s tuition at a private university, four years at a public institution of higher education, or a down payment on a home of average price in the United States.
Since I will never run for office, I am free to actually figure out how to cover the cost of the “Futures Account” without a companion proposal that would add tax burdens to the upper class. The full accounting of the funding mechanism can be found in either in my book or in the article, as mentioned above. The solution is a simple idea: to fund the futures account, eliminate the dependent child deduction from the tax code. Having run this idea by numerous members of the so-called “1 percent,” I find that they would gladly trade off the cost of paying for some college for the loss of the child deduction. Secondly, the Pell Grant program could be eliminated, as it would no longer be needed to make college economically accessible.
Sadly, President Obama missed a nearly perfect opportunity to merge his concern over the state of the American middle class with his stated desire to work with Congress. A college and home-ownership access program that would invigorate the American middle class is feasible, affordable, and could achieve bipartisan support. If only his account of the state of the union today had more in it to improve the state of the union tomorrow.