President Barack Obama outlined a plan to make two-year community colleges, like TJC, free to all student attending classes at least half-time and maintaining a 2.5 GPA. As nice as this may sound, there are problems below the surface that would make this even worse than the status quo. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or community college degree.
The first question concerns graduation rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics, only 19.5 percent of first-time, first-year students community college students complete their degrees within 150 percent of the time they’re supposed to take. In other words, less than 20 percent of us, statistically speaking, will complete a two-year degree in under three years. However, the number at 63 percent at for-profit universities. Perhaps public funds ought to go to the institutions providing the most public benefits.
How does President Obama propose we pay the cost of running a college if students are not paying for themselves? His plan would set the federal government back $60 billion over the next decade (with another $20 billion to be paid by states, likely from a raised sales tax), to be raised by a capital gains tax on “the wealthiest one percent of Americans” and on top financial institutions. We may not want to depend on these sources forever, though. In 1974, economist Art Laffer wrote his Laffer curve (of Ferris Bueler’s Day Off fame), proposing that taxes alter behavior. If my income is being taken from me, it is in my best financial interest to relocate, to hide my income, to make hefty deductions or find other ways to keep more for myself. In short, the act of raising the taxes too high actually decreases revenues, and make no mistake, that cost will come right back to you and me sooner or later.
The most compelling reason to oppose the president’s plan is the existence of Pell Grants. The average community college charges $3,300 per semester, but federal Pell Grants distribute roughly $5,730 per student per semester according to a CNN article by Michael B. Horn on Jan. 21. These funds are available only to low-income students who have not finished their first bachelor’s degree. The standards for free community college tuition are significantly looser, however, giving the most benefits to those not receiving Pell Grants — i.e. middle and upper class students. Why should we pay to subsidize those who, by definition, don’t need it?
These funds would be far better invested in a plan to expand the Pell Grant system, cut down on the bureaucratic red tape that keeps low-income students from what is rightfully theirs and then see if further action is needed. Let’s fix the current system before we throw good money into a new one.