Why Not Free? Well, "Free."

ThinkProgress proposes that the President's free lunch 'free two years of community college' plan is taking the wrong way 'round. We could just as readily make college free for the whole four years, at all public colleges, without spending more than we're already spending:
If President Obama truly wants to transform the cost of higher education, however, he could make college free for all students without having to lay out more money to pay for it. That’s because the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data. (The government spends another $197.4 billion on student loans.) That would give all students who want to get a college degree a free option to do so. It could also put pressure on private universities to compete with the free option by reducing their costs, which have risen 13 percent over the last five years.
I have a sense that we're going to have to extend the "free" (meaning publicly subsidized) education we pay for in this country. We already provide publicly-funded education through high school. The expansion will need to come because the continual transformation of the economy by technology means that (a) whole industries are dying -- see travel agencies, secretarial pools -- and (b) the only thing like an answer to that problem is to retrain people for whatever new sectors of work are emerging from the constant technological change. But the people being forced out of dying industries are low on the list of those likely to be able to afford the cost of advanced education.

Thus, our options as a country are:

1) Allow our fellow citizens to fall out of the productive/employable classes, which means that they will not be providing tax revenues (and, most probably, will be consuming expensive public welfare programs -- but even if we were to manage to restrain those, they still will not be adding to the common fund),

2) Spend some of our public stores to help make sure people can retrain in productive ways.

The best way to do this would be to establish some right/left limits on what kinds of programs we consider productive enough to merit public funding, probably based on some rolling estimate of which industries are coming-to-be or passing-away due to current changes in technology. We would need to make sure money didn't go to waste, but was directed at programs designed to help people retrain for current careers. This is something that we're just going to have to expect people to do more and more as time goes along, and the poorest most often, so we probably need to think about a solution that doesn't require them to have either money or credit if we want them to succeed. We should want them to succeed, if only for selfish reasons of keeping them off welfare rolls and helping with the taxpaying duties for a larger percentage of their lives.

Public colleges are a good start, but we should really expand especially to vocational schools. A travel agent put out of work by Expedia may not have the chops for a degree in engineering, but might benefit from getting a CDL so she could move to Texas and drive trucks to and from the oil fields. That's something we could do pretty cheaply and relatively quickly, compared to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and it would get her back on her feet and into the taxpaying class as quickly as possible. We'd save money, even if it is not in any sense "free," and it would be good for the moral health of our citizenry as a whole if more of them were able to work and fewer were on welfare of any kind.


Joel Leggett said...

This is totally off topic but I don’t think I was successful posting this in the “Beowulf vs. The Founders” thread.


I have recently read a couple of books that have changed my opinion regarding the Germanic warrior society influence on the development of Anglo-American political institutions and customs. The first book is From Plato to NATO by David Gress and the second book is Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World by Daniel Hannan. Allow me to say that you were right and I was wrong. I maybe eight years late, but never let it be said I can’t admit when I am wrong.

Texan99 said...

The kids that need two years of free community college might do as well to repeat 11th and 12th grade and pay closer attention this time.

E Hines said...

OP operates from the false premise that college should be funded from national tax funds.

Of course, there's no reason a citizen of bankrupt Illinois should have his tax money go to bankrupt California's public college system.

Each state can make up its own mind how much of its own public money--that is to say, the money that belongs to the citizens of that state--should be committed to its own post-high school education.

The Federal subsidies (which only contribute to the rising price of a college education) should be cancelled altogether, with the taxes supporting them withdrawn and left in the citizens' hands. The most effective way to stop the rise in costs is to stop subsidizing.

There's a secondary problem here: college isn't for everyone. The artificially inflated demand for a college degree also contributes mightily to the cost of one.

Eric Hines

MikeD said...

+1 to everything Eric just said.

E Hines said...

Speaking as one who taught in a private(!) community college, those kids aren't the only attendees. Most of my students were working adults, who'd been working for some time. These folks knew the cost of not having the education/training they needed, and they were highly motivated and dedicated--even in my classes, which were required "electives."

I had a number of high school students, too, who basically divided into two groups: those looking to cut expenses at a four-year college by getting their first two years at a junior college and then transferring, and those who hadn't a clue what they wanted to do with their lives. The latter also knew they had no clue, and they were deliberately using these two years to see if they could figure something out. Both of these groups were as motivated and dedicated as their older classmates.

Of course, the fact that this was a private junior college, and not a public one, might have had an impact on the kind of student population present. There'd be a hint there....

Eric Hines

Grim said...


You're a man's man, my friend.

Grim said...


I don't think I said anything about the Federal government in the OP. Obama certainly wants to do it partially that way -- although he's talking about the states 'sharing' the costs. ThinkProgress would like to do it that way. But all I said was that we probably need to find a way to do it. Since the analogy was to high school, which we generally fund at the state level, I'm not sure why you assume I'm assuming the Feds would do this.

As for the point about college not being for everyone, I agree. That's one reason I mentioned vocational schools.

E Hines said...

The assumption came from this part of your quote from the article: the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data.

I read that in conjunction with your own statements we're going to have to extend the "free" (meaning publicly subsidized) education we pay for in this country. and The best way to do this would be to establish some right/left limits on what kinds of programs we consider productive enough to merit public funding....

I didn't understand any of that to be limited to not Federal taxes. Apparently, I didn't not understand correctly.

Eric Hines

David Foster said...

Someone who teaches at a community college...one of my Chicago Boyz colleagues, IIRC...remarked that students there don't fall into a "bell curve," but rather into a "bra curve"...two separate distributions, one for mostly-older people who are seriously pursuing a career, and one for kids at loose ends who are going because their parents told them they had to. I suspect that "free" community college would increase the % of those on the second breast of the bra.

I think America's large community-college system (if you can call it a system) is probably an asset that could be used a lot more effectively, but doubt if lack of free tuition is the main inhibitor...these places already cost a lot less than the 4-year colleges. There are apparently problems with an unhelpful attitude by the 4-year colleges on transfer of credits from the 2-year places, and also, there are a lot of employers that require a 4-year college degree for no reason other than knee-jerk imitativeness.

Cass said...

Amen, David. Great comment.

I have 2 degrees from community colleges, and am a huge fan. I also worked my way though easily tutoring and teaching supplemental courses. Couldn't agree more - it isn't money but rather preparation and effort that are the impediments.

The technical programs at many community colleges are first rate, and in many states, they are developed in partnership with 4 year schools, who view them as feeders, and industry, who have a huge impact on curriculum and often shape it to the market.

I am not among the crowd who think giving a valuable commodity away "for free" (actually, just using other people's money to pay for it) makes outcomes better when what's really wanted in most cases is students who are willing to put in the required work.

Texan99 said...

There may be a lot of excellent reasons for the existence of community colleges. My doubt concerns the need for free ones.

Texan99 said...

And I should add that most high schools--I hope even today's high schools--offer a lot of good material in 11th and 12th grade for the students who want to push toward college material, enough to permit motivated students to place out of a lot of what is offered in the average university freshman year. A kid who really wants to take advantage of the free education that's already on offer shouldn't have much trouble filling up his schedule for a couple of extra years. He just has to stay away from the electives and concentrate on the AP classes.

I imagine the community colleges are trying a lot harder, and offer a more adult experience. But if we make them free and treat them as what amounts to 13th and 14th grade, I suspect we'll find that they degenerate into what most kids experience as high school juniors and seniors. In other words, the whole proposal is trying to fix the wrong problem.

Grim said...

That's not the problem I'm trying to fix, though. I was talking about -- ahem -- the 'first breast.'

Texan99 said...

Clearly there is a prevalent problem of people who lack the education needed to keep up in a changing jobs environment. It's not so clear that they're taking advantage of the considerable free education that's already being offered to them. Is the answer really more taxing and spending? That approach doesn't seem to have improved the public schools so far. What will be different this time?

I realize community colleges may be teaching more useful job-oriented things than most high schools do, like IT skills, but I'd still focus on improving the high schools than on adding more free grades.

Grim said...

If the TP piece is to be believed, we could add not merely community colleges but four-year colleges for less than we are currently spending (and presumably taxing, except of course that we no longer bother with collecting the money before we spend it).

Of course, it's unlikely that making college and vocational school 'free' would not affect demand for it. But on the other hand many people are averse to education, wanting no more of it than they cannot help. I suspect a lot of people would be willing to go to school to learn to be a technician on MRI machines, if they could do it in a few months with only so many texts and tests; but not at all willing to go to school to obtain a BA in any subject.

In any case, what would be different this time is that it would be aimed at those who -- unlike most high school students -- have been out in the world and have been beaten up by it. Unemployed, poor and humiliated, they may appreciate what so many high school students have not yet learned to appreciate. That's why they are 'first breast' and not 'second breast' -- it's not just free grades tacked on to high school, but aimed at those who have become unemployed and need to retrain.

Anonymous said...

Moving past my first response of "Oh HECK no!", I'm not in favor of this. 1) Who will pay for it? At least here, it will be the people who pay the property taxes that support the JuCos. 2) I highly suspect that the program and the attendance bump will be in the remedial students rather than in the older advanced-vocational students. Vocational students would take advantage of it, but as with four-year open enrollment colleges, it will be the "Ok, OK, I'll get a degree, quit nagging me, Mom" students that will show up, get funds, and fritter them.

I hope I'm wrong, but I've been around too many administrators to see this ending well.


Grim said...

Concerns with bureaucrats and bad students are valid. I'd think you'd answer them with a combination of grade/progress requirements (in Georgia, the HOPE scholarship to public colleges, essentially making them 'free' for the four-year degree, requires a 3.0 GPA). You might want to make sure the programs were available not to students coming straight from high school, requiring either a few years' delay to try the job market, or perhaps being eligible for unemployment insurance.

Still, as for how they get paid for, in part they get paid for by getting people off of welfare and into taxpaying roles. That's good not only for the budget, but for the moral health of the people.

E Hines said...

as for how they get paid for, in part they get paid for by getting people off of welfare and into taxpaying roles.

You're proposing a government program to mitigate a government program. Good luck with that. Government is almost never the answer; more government never is.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

You think people are on welfare because we don't provide enough free education? Yikes.

Grim said...

I'm proposing a government program to mitigate the effects of automation and technological change on those most likely to be subject to their effects. I think we ought to be concerned with the effects of economic change on fellow Americans. I'm sure there are some people on welfare because they're bad, or lazy, or whatever. But there are a lot of people still out of work who would be working if there were jobs they could do. They just don't have much education, and so they did unskilled construction labor while that paid. Now it doesn't. Help them train, and they'll pay taxes again. Don't, and you can pay their unemployment or disability out of your taxes forever.

E Hines said...

[W]e ought to be concerned with the effects....

We ought to be. Government is not, and it cannot ever be.

Folks are out of work today, and out of the work force altogether, because of government policies, allegedly meant to help these folks, but in fact meant to help the folks in government. Those policies need to be corrected--which only we can do. For instance, your unemployment payments, which did nothing but keep folks from getting back to work. As demonstrated by folks getting back to work when their unemployment payments stopped.

Then we need to help the majority of folks who want work or (re)training for work. Only after our resources are exhausted or temporarily overwhelmed is it appropriate for government to get involved. With those 14, or so, who remain wanting help.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

I don't think I agree with that. There is no reason why the government ought not to be the instrument for our patriotic concern for fellow members of our community. We might have some concerns about its efficiencies, about its propensity for corruption, etc.; but this is a structural problem arising from this particular moment in economic history. It's a temporary problem, contingent on these facts of rapidly changing technology that nevertheless still produces scarcity. But it's a problem we have right now.

We could refuse to address the problem with government, but that means pitting Americans against others globally on an even playing field. It's fair. I don't like that; I like things to be unfair in our favor. Perhaps that makes me a bad person, but I'm largely in favor of maintaining American privilege and influence -- I think our values are, for the most part, better than other national values that are likely to prevail if we do not.

So, I'm in favor of doing what it takes to make sure that Americans come out on top. If that means things like the HOPE Scholarship, well, that's worked out pretty well. It's not that novel an idea; we've been doing 'free' four year college in Georgia since Zell Miller was governor in the early 1990s. A retraining program aimed at least as much at vocational schools sounds promising to me, given that history.

Ymar Sakar said...

Don't worry, even without tuition, they'll still get them on the books.

Professor mansions don't pay for themselves now.

Grim said...

You know, tenured professors have a good gig. But it's the administrators who are really making a killing -- and killing the host, at the same time.

E Hines said...

this is a structural problem arising from this particular moment in economic history.

No, this is a structural problem from our having, for too long, let government do our duty for us, instead of having government help us do our own duty--which is more than just a patriotic one; it's a moral one.

Some data compiled by the Pennsylvania State Secretary of Public Welfare in 2012: a single mother earning a wage of $29k/yr can be eligible for more than $28k in welfare payments for a total family income of $57k. Think about what a crappy job she has that pays just 29 large. If she gets a pay raise of just $1k to $30k, though, she loses $8k in benefits and receives for her trouble, a $7k reduction in total income. That's a progressive marginal tax rate that would make a thrill run down any Progressive's leg--except it progressively taxes the least fortunate.

That's government dependency, and it helps no one.

The dependency also is tax money taken out of our pockets so we're less able to help those we see needing help, at the time, and in the way, of our choosing--which will be far more efficiently done than what the government is doing, and with far less dependency by the recipient.

Dynamically, that tax money left in our hands means a stronger, more robust, more prosperous economy, which results in fewer folks actually needing the help from any source, and/or less of it.

The structural failure of our welfare, stemming in large part, if not mostly, from turning our duty over to government is not at all a matter of this particular moment in history; it's been building for the last 80 years.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Think about what a crappy job she has that pays just 29 large.

I don't have to think very hard: she has the only kind of job you can get around here. She works part time (because of Obamacare, no full time employment is available -- all jobs added since the recession ended have been part time or temporary). Part time now means 24 hours a week, because no employer wants to risk having to provide her with health insurance given that the government has decided it is free to alter that bargain whenever it wishes, so no business can know what its costs will be.

If she is being paid the princely sum of $10/hr, having worked the same minimum wage job long enough to build up to that via annual raises, that's $240 a week, or $12,480 a year. So she works two of these jobs, and actually she still doesn't get to $29K. That kind of wage is out of reach for her.

She may be eligible for government benefits, but she probably doesn't get much out of them. They require hours of trekking to the office to apply and complain and manage the bureaucrats' involvement in her life, and she works two jobs and is a single mom.

So yes, government has screwed up her life. She'd be way better off with a single full-time job that paid a decent wage. But there aren't any.

But there is one sector of the economy that's growing, as the Boomer population ages: medical technicians of various kinds. If she could afford to go to school and become an MRI operator, she might be able to do something a little better. Moving her into skilled labor would help us a lot, because she's certainly willing to work. To make that move, though, she needs both time and money: she doesn't have time if she has to work two jobs, and she doesn't have money for tuition.

It sounds as if your suggestion for eliminating her government dependence is to eliminate all the welfare programs that create a disincentive for her to earn an extra thousand dollars a year. I don't think she's going to suddenly find ways to earn a bunch more money just because the disincentive is gone, though, because the problem she's got is structural: maybe she could take a third part-time job, but it's already very hard to schedule two of them (since, with computerized scheduling, employers all want to schedule almost all their employees to work the same high-traffic hours). If she does, she might have some money for tuition -- but she won't have time for school.

Of all the things we do to help the working poor, helping them get educations -- whether valuable degrees or vocational certifications -- might really give them the tools to lift themselves out of poverty. Yes, the rest of the programs seem to trap them in it. Education, though, does empower. At least it can, if you have a program like HOPE that requires serious scholarship and discipline from its recipients.

E Hines said...

It sounds as if your suggestion for eliminating her government dependence is to eliminate all the welfare programs that create a disincentive for her to earn an extra thousand dollars a year.

Yes, but that's only part of the solution, because

the problem she's got is structural

You bet--and the structural problem is the government's intervention--interference, I should say--in our economy. The recession is over? Of course it is. Formally, because it met an academic definition of a recession end 'way back in 2009. Is the recession over, really? Ask our single mother. It may be that she'll even agree with you, having never noticed its onset: she's been living in this poverty all her working life, and likely all of her childhood, too. Ask anyone who's in--or was in--the middle class. Ask anyone who's no longer in our current labor force, which participation rate is at historic lows.

This is the slowest post-recession "recovery" since WWII. The unemployment rate is only just approaching pre-recession rates, four years behind the usual schedule. GDP growth still isn't up to post-recession recovery rates, much less got to its normal equilibrium growth rate. Labor productivity may be approaching its growth rate of the late '90s and post-dot com bust--but that's growth from the bottoms of the just "concluded" recession. That's no particular knock on Obama's "economic" policies; he only made existing government failure an order of magnitude worse.

We need to erase our national welfare programs that despicably only create honest citizens as dependents, anyway, and start that over de nihilo, but if that's all we do, it'll be a miserable failure. We also need to get government and its "regulations" out of our economy, so a free market can, via the invisible hand of everyone's self interest, raise everyone's prosperity.

Of all the things we do to help the working poor, helping them get educations....

And the non-working poor, too, absolutely. But not with government involvement. That would only ruin it, just as government involvement has ruined four-year college and graduate school education.

Eric Hines