President Obama is announcing a plan to make two years of community college free for those maintaining a GPA and making progress towards completing a program. It will be one of the new ideas proposed at the State of the Union on January 20th. Though a smart plan in its own right, one that puts defenders of higher education on the offense for a change, this plan could be the beginning of a better way to provide public goods.
The headline benefits of the plan are obvious. The White House estimates that it will benefit nine million students to the tune of $3,800 a year. Given that community college students disproportionately come from poorer families, that’s a major plus. It will help boost and stabilize an important civil and education tool consistently threatened by state-level austerity. And it’s good for the economy too, as there’s no story about the twenty-first-century economy that doesn’t have an increased need for education playing a major role.
But it may also herald a larger shift. For the past generation we’ve seen higher education move from a model where it was largely free, to one where it is expensive and discounted for poorer students. Obama’s proposal is a move in the opposite direction, the sort of vision proposed by people like Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall who argue that the first two years of all public colleges should be free. And when you dig deeper into the economics of this story, there are additional benefits. By embracing this public option, we can lower hidden taxes on the working-class and avert reactionary political coalitions, while also helping to contain costs and create a reasonable set of regulations.
The first response you’ll hear is that this is unnecessary, because we already help the poorest students with grants and other, more targeted aid for tuition. Why make community colleges free?
But by providing means-tested aid such as Pell Grants, we place the poor in a bind. The more money they make, the more the grants are pulled back, which functions just like a higher tax rate and creates a mess of a system. Targeted aid regimes can end up being regressive anyway. Like many other features of our “submerged” state, one’s ability to access aid depends on his or her ability to navigate a complicated tax regime to claim those benefits. Universal programs can mean less bureaucracy, where the system cares less about your ability to line up forms proving how needy you are, and more about your actual desire and ability to educate yourself. And according to recent research, making programs free might even boost their status with potential users compared to those offered at a discount.