Thursday, January 15, 2015

Obama's "Free" 2- Year College Proposal: How To Pay For It?

Two weeks ago, Obama surprised everyone with a daring proposal  that "would make community college free for everyone who is willing to work for it". Alas, the White House provided no details on how it might be implemented, but one expects that will be taken care of when Obama delivers his State of the Union message.

In respect of the plan, Obama also noted in a Facebook message:

"It's not just for kids. We have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits."

This intention to make community college accessible for all ages is good, and I already cited (in my Dec. 15 post) a Denver Post op-ed by Dick Hilker who quoted Rhonda Bentz (the state system's media and government relations director)  that :

"the Voc-Technical route is the educational system's best kept secret. Students come for two year degrees and then get real jobs."

 Hilker went on to note:

"In other words there are solid alternatives to spending big bucks at Big State U. to major in Tibetan Culture or Music Appreciation before winding up as a clerk at Mega-Mart."

Community colleges, therefore, are  a definite solution that is both realistic and rational. Especially given that nearly 60% of incoming college students now don't finish their degrees. Thus, as Hilker put it: "California is now considering making a community college degree mandatory before a student can enter a state university"

Hence, Obama's free community college proposal could well lead to a more economic approach to getting a 4-year college education - and hence much lower student debt.  Alternatively, a student who can't finish a 4-year degree will now have an option, in most cases,  before s/he comes to the point of quitting. So rather than waste tens of thousands of dollars the student  will come away with something (A.A. degree or trade certificate) allowing them to economically advance.
Community colleges also provide a major economic solution because they can be accessed for half the cost or less of state universities, mainly because they aren't research institutions "where professors get big bucks for not doing much teaching" in the words of Hilker. This is also a boon given 51 percent of college students, according to a recent Brookings Institution study, don't even know how much student debt they will owe. (28 percent of entering freshmen don't.)

In respect to Obama's proposal, the White House said that if all states participated, some 9 million students could benefit - saving an average of $3,800 per year for a full time student. One projected cost estimate (cited by Carly Fiorina on Bill Maher's Real Time last Friday) is $60 billion.
Carly Fiorina
Ms.Fiorina then stated: "This isn't going to be free, and someone will have to pay for it ....taxpayers!
But there are ways to take it on using budget  offsets, as opposed to adding that amount of new taxes. For example, if we withdrew all our remnant 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by mid-year, that would save about $60 billion which could be put towards this education plan. Take your pick: bottomless waste pit or constructive education!
Another option is to cut $60 billion from the bloated defense budget itself. A rational place to start cutting is the white elephant, problem-laced F-35 which cost overruns currently estimate to lead to $0.3 billion each before production ends. Some 2,335 of these are planned - and to make a $60 billion offset all that's needed is to reduce production by 200. That leaves 2, 135  F-35s- still more than enough for all service branches!
Let's also bear in mind that under the plan states would put up part of the funding.
There are also ways to control costs by stipulating qualification requirements as well as retention of benefits.  For example, not every manjack who thinks he wants to go to college should be given a free pass. There must be preliminary evidence of being a serious student, say in his or her high school record. At the very least then, a high C (e.g. 2.8)  average ought to be the minimum requirement for entry into the program.
What about continuing the program? Under the Obama proposal participating students would be required to maintain "a modest grade point average". Of course, the devil here is in the details. What exactly is the definition of a modest grade point average? Is it 2.0? Is it 2.2?  What about 2.5? This threshold will have direct bearing on continuing costs.
The plan on paper looks promising but we will be looking for Obama to provide many more details about it in his State of the Union!

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