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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