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Obama’s ‘Free’ College Program: Study shows massive costs for states, taxpayers

(COD Newsroom/Flickr)

(COD Newsroom/Flickr)

A new study estimates that President Obama’s $60 billion initiative for free community college could cost states about $4 billion combined.

To cover those costs, state spending would need to increase by about 5 percent on average, though some states would require double-digit increases, according to the study from the American Action Forum.

That would be a hard sell politically. “Since the recession began, a majority of states have cut their per-student higher education funding by more than one-fifth,” The Washington Examiner noted.

The Obama administration and its supporters argue that, as college costs trend ever upward and student loan debt mounts, free community college would help students avoid debt. However, just as the federal student loan program has failed to keep college costs low, free tuition does little to reform the higher education system.

“The proposals do nothing to actually lower the cost of college, but merely subsidize today’s expensive tuition rates. Free in this context does not attempt to drive down the cost of providing education, but instead shifts the burden of paying for higher education away from students and onto taxpayers,” study authors Carlo Salerno, Chad Miller, and DouDou Zhang wrote.

Shifting costs to encourage more students in community colleges could drive up enrollments, as it has done in Tennessee, but driving up graduation rates will remain a challenge. Community colleges have a 3-year graduation rate of 29 percent, though students often transfer and complete their degree at 4-year institutions, who aren’t reflected in the graduation rate.

Some students drop out due to cost concerns. And student debt increases have been driven by students at community and for-profit colleges. But those issues will not fade with free community college, as costs go beyond tuition and fees, though they could improve on the margin.

The study notes an alternative solution to improving college access and success: investing funds in existing programs targeted at college affordability such as Pell grants. That approach has its own problems, as Pell grants have expanded to include middle-income students, though the program originally targeted low-income students and recipients have a lower graduation rate than the average.

The appeal of a new program instead of improving existing ones, however, is that of a “legacy of change.” Politicians are routinely seduced by the idea of leaving a flag-bearing program as a show of their accomplishments.

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