While President Barack Obama was gathering victories critical to his legacy last week on Capitol Hill and at the Supreme Court, the D.C. Council worked on another of his priorities.
The council is considering making community college free for nearly all district residents. The plan would funnel federal funds, private donations and a hefty amount of local tax dollars to cover the full cost of tuition and mandatory fees at the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC).
Seven of the 13 members of the council have co-sponsored the Community College For All Scholarship Amendment Act of 2015, introduced by Councilman Vincent B. Orange Sr. The bill requires that a student be a resident of the district, have graduated high school or obtained a GED and must maintain a minimum 2.0 grade-point average. Introduced in February, the measure was the subject of a public hearing last week. Public comments are open until July 7, after which the council will consider the legislation.
The goal of the program—to provide valuable skills and training to a millennial workforce—is a worthy one. However, the ends do not justify the proposed means.
The council’s proposal follows a plan laid out by the White House earlier this year. In early January, the president announced: “Put simply, what I would to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everyone who is willing to work for it.”
But by all measures, community college already is affordable, and students willing to work for it can gain an education on their own. What’s more, 57 percent of community college students already receive some form of state, federal or institutional aid. In fact, at UDC-CC, 70 percent of students already have tuition and fees completely covered by federal Pell grants. Making the UDC-CC free is merely going to benefit those who already could afford to attend.
This is a problem endemic to the Obama plan as a whole, as Vox’s Libby Nelson wrote when the plan was announced:
The program is more likely to directly benefit middle-class and wealthier students who are more able to afford tuition…at community colleges, it’s often living expenses and foregone wage, not tuition prices, that are the biggest financial barrier to attendance.
A secondary problem, both with the D.C. plan and the president’s proposal more generally is that it would extend scholarships for just two years. The Economist reports that only 20 percent of community college students complete their associate degree in less than three years. Not only would funding be cut off just when graduation is in sight, but one must question the wisdom of a huge investment in a school whose last published graduation rate was 12 percent.
According to the Washington Post, neither Orange nor any of his colleagues ever discussed the plans with officials at UDC-CC, which already receives $66 million in subsidies from the district. This lack of communication is troubling because the bill’s language requires students to “participate in mentoring and community service programs under the rules and regulations promulgated by UDC-CC.”
Offering community college at no cost does not guarantee job creation. To the extent that it spurs demand without either a price signal to mediate that demand or a commitment to invest a commensurate amount on the supply side, it is likely either to increase the cost of providing education, decrease the quality of the education provided or both.
Indeed, the primary effect of expanding the number of individuals who attend community college may primarily be to make an associate degree a prerequisite for an even larger number of low-paying jobs. The degree would merely signal to employers that a candidate can show up to work on time and complete assignments, without any assumed bump in productivity. The result is to further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Put simply, what I would like to see, contrary to the president’s stated goal, is for the first two years of community college remain affordable for everyone willing to work for it.