Fresh from making her presidential candidacy official, Hillary Clinton has endorsed President Obama’s eye-catching plan to make the first two years of community college free. That plan allows part-time and full-time students who maintain a GPA of at least 2.5 and “make steady progress toward completing a program” to qualify.
When the plan was first announced, it drew immediate fire from analysts pointing out that community college completion rates are already so low, and that current students already need so much remedial work, that adding even more marginal students into an overburdened system might not turn out for the best. Here’s Megan McArdle:
Community college completion rates, while hard to calculate, seem to be pretty unimpressive; five years after enrolling, only 25 percent of people had an associate or four-year degree. Another 11 percent had certificates, some of which may be economically valuable, but even if you add in those numbers, that’s still a pretty dismal record.
Of course, community colleges are often dealing with the most challenging students. More than 50 percent of community-college enrollees require remedial work, and of those, more than 40 percent never even complete their remedial courses. Add in family and financial challenges, and it’s not surprising that dropout rates are so high. But this raises a question that most people don’t ask. If you graduated high school without mastering basic math and reading, and can’t complete the remedial courses offered by your community college, what are the odds that you are going to earn a valuable degree? Why are we so obsessed with pushing that group further into the higher education system, rather than asking if we aren’t putting too much emphasis on getting a degree?
There’s a sense of willful blindness and grim despair behind the Obama and, now, Hillary proposal. After 150 years of effort, the United States has not built an elementary school system that gets even 80 percent of young kids to functional literacy. After a century of trying, we haven’t built a secondary school system that remedies the problems created by elementary school failure, much less one that imparts the skills high school students need for success in college or adult life. And nearly 70 years after the United States first launched the experiment of offering post-secondary educational opportunity to the masses rather than to a small and well-heeled elite, we still see many students slip through the cracks. Colleges and community colleges haven’t been able to remedy the deficiencies of our high schools any more than the high schools have been able to succeed where the grade schools failed.
On top of that, we seem to be chasing diminishing returns. If 2 percent of the population is going to college, there can be very large gains if the rate of college attendance grows to 20 percent. But if 44 percent of the population is already graduating with an associate or bachelor’s degree, the chances are that the remaining 56 percent are going to benefit less from the experience—and it will cost a lot of money to get them to go.
It is certainly true that there are some students and working adults who would benefit greatly from easier access to community college; it is at least as true that much of the low hanging fruit has already been picked and that on average it will be harder and more expensive to serve those who for whatever reason haven’t yet engaged with the higher ed system. What the President is proposing to do will in large part involve spending 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.
This kind of reductio ad absurdum of social programs, chasing the curve of diminishing returns far past the point where common sense would say “stop”, is increasingly typical of an era of blue model breakdown. Social programs that worked reasonably well for the population for whom they were first targeted keep getting extended until they bog down in failure and overreach. The misguided home mortgage programs of the early 2000s housing boom were a perfect example of this pattern. The American system of home ownership helped millions of families live in better homes than they could have otherwise afforded even as they built equity. It worked so well that many wanted to extend those benefits to less credit-worthy, less economically established borrowers. The rules were relaxed and regulators encouraged bankers to stretch a point to make a loan. In the end, the marginal homeowners were the chief victims of the home mortgage meltdown, and the toxic aftermath of the housing bubble wiped out decades of wealth acquisition for minority communities in the United States.
Nothing quite that dramatic is going to happen if the the community college proposal beats the odds and becomes law. But a wise use of resources this is not.