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Update: White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz has announced that the expected cost of the proposal will be $60 billion over the next decade, a number that seems wildly unrealistic to the present author based on the math below.
In the run-up to his State of the Union Address, President Obama is advancing a bold new proposal for education. He wants to make community college free for the first two years for students who are willing to “work for it.” Of course, by “work for it” he means “not completely fail,” setting the extremely low bar for eligibility of a C+ average and half (half!?) time attendance.
Right off the bat, three problems jump out that make this idea about as bad as any Obama has ever had.
Problem Number One: The Cost
Whenever someone from the government says they want to make something free, what they really mean is that they want you to pay for it, either through taxes, debt that must be repaid in the future, or the cost of inflation that comes from printing more money. While no official price tag yet accompanies the president’s proposal, you can bet that it will not be cheap.
Using a rough, back of the envelope calculation, we can get a figure somewhere in the ballpark using the president’s own figures. Obama claims that his proposal will affect 9 million students a year and save them, on average $3,800 a year. This adds up to a total cost of $34.2 billion a year. Only three quarters of this cost will be borne by the federal government, with the remaining quarter being picked up by participating states.
Of course, the government is in the habit of underestimating the costs of major programs, and there is no consideration of the additional capacity schools will presumably need to accommodate the flood of new students hungry for a free education. Who’s going to pay for the extra classrooms, teachers, and materials? The answer is most likely that tuitions will have to rise for the third and fourth years of college, negating a lot of the benefits this proposal claims to confer.
Problem Number Two: Market Distortions
Whenever the government sets prices in a private market, it creates distortions that alter incentives consumers would otherwise face. If the government were to mandate free apples, the producers of oranges would be all but ruined, not to mention the effect on the dietary habits of Americans.
The same thing is true of education. Throughout his presidency, Obama has labored under the delusion that a liberal arts education is the best thing for absolutely everybody. But we are living in a time when trade and vocational schools are becoming extremely important, as are technical college, and the good old-fashioned work experience that led dropouts like Bill Gates to become great entrepreneurs.
The price system functions as an extremely efficient allocator of resources. Artificially dropping the price of community college will drive students away from these other educational avenues and into community colleges where they may miss the opportunities best suited to their talents and inclinations.
Problem Number Three: More Federal Control
All over the country, parents and teachers are rebelling against Common Core educational standards, finding that their top-down focus on one-size-fits-all testing is harmful and ineffective. Obama’s proposal demands “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms” from community colleges in order to qualify for the funding, the exact same approach that the federal government used to pressure states into adopting Common Core, despite explicit legal prohibitions on federal control of education.
These kind of requirements as conditions for funding are always an excuse for a federal power grab, resulting in a loss of local control, and the accompanying declines in quality that always occur.
Education has always been held to be the domain of the states and not of the federal government, following the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Obama administration’s continued attempts to federalize what is necessarily a local process can only lead to further deterioration of the nation’s schools and colleges.