Monday, September 09, 2013


Should Community Colleges Be Free?

Since Dylan Matthews wrapped up his series on college costs, his closing suggestion about making community colleges free has been making the rounds on Twitter.  

The argument is straightforward enough.  Community colleges are low-cost feeders to higher levels, as well as respected and popular sites for occupational training.  Making them free would provide an incentive for more people to go, thereby saving money as against more expensive options.  It would strike a blow against student loan burdens, and would greatly simplify the financial aid process.  And to the extent that it made it easier for low-income students to attend, it would be consistent with the “access” mission for which community colleges exist.

But I’m wary.  It looks like a trap, or, at best, a slow-motion disaster.

The most basic issue is where operating funding would come from.  As unpopular as tuition and fees are, broad-based taxes are even worse.  That’s why the last few decades -- and especially the last five years or so -- have seen a dramatic shift in funding from states (and, in some cases, counties) to students.  Giving up that tuition/fee revenue would place community colleges entirely at the mercy of state legislatures and economic cycles.

Secondly, and relatedly, the source of most financial aid is the federal government.  (States have some, and private scholarships help, but the feds are the major players.)  Operating aid to the institution comes mostly from the state, but financial aid to students comes mostly from the feds.  That means that replacing student-pay with state-pay would dramatically increase the cost to the state, all else being equal.  I’ll use my home state as an example, just to keep things simple.  Massachusetts taxpayers pay both state and federal taxes.  If Massachusetts were to base community college funding entirely on state dollars, then Massachusetts taxpayers would carry a double burden: they’d carry the entire cost of their own colleges, while also paying taxes to subsidize the financial aid for colleges in other states.  That’s a tough sell.  (The same basic argument holds in states that share costs with counties or districts.)  

There’s also a basic definitional question.  Are we only talking about the credit-bearing side of community colleges, or also the non-credit side?  Would corporate training be free?  Personal enrichment classes?  Adult basic education?  In many places, the funding for adult basic education badly lags demand, with significant waiting lists as a result.  

History and politics offer reasons for concern.  Certain public colleges started out free.  CUNY was famously free until the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s, for example.  But that’s my point.  Fiscal crises will happen, one way or another.  When they do, colleges that are entirely dependent on state funding will suffer even more badly than they do now.  Political winds shift; even if a particular governor is wise, well-meaning, and far-sighted, there’s no guarantee that the next few will be.  Worse, to the extent that going tuition-free makes community colleges look less like colleges to the public, and more like K-12 schools or social service agencies, it’s easy to foresee the political fallout.

Colleges’ incentives would shift in predictable ways.  California’s example is useful here.  California’s community colleges aren’t “free,” but they’re remarkably inexpensive by national standards, and what little tuition they collect doesn’t go towards operating budgets.  So when enrollment growth threatens to outstrip appropriations, they can’t grow their way out of trouble.  Instead, they shrink.  They run fewer sections of necessary classes, establish waiting lists, and charge students in the form of time, rather than money.  Not coincidentally, for-profit providers have swooped in to fill the void.  If you can’t control income, but you can control expenses, then controlling expenses is exactly what you do.  

If we want to make community colleges permanently affordable, and sustainable, the first thing to do is to get health care costs under control.  I’d also love to see long-term commitments to slow, steady growth in operating funding -- the health care savings could cover that -- and some national support for “best practices” studies in structure and administration.  In my perfect world, we’d even look much more seriously at competency-based credentials, and at serious efficiencies in financial aid and ERP systems.  But we wouldn’t just throw up our hands and declare that it’s all free.  We just don’t have the political culture to make that safe.

I share your "extension of K-12" concern with totally free, but one could argue for a cost structure that is "Pell free" -- meaning tuition and standard living costs are covered by Pell for the poorest students without a need for any loans. Better off students would have to put some skin in the game.

That addresses your concern about not getting your Federal taxes worth if the state stepped up its support of CCs by themselves or just leveled the spending for frosh and soph classes across the CC and Uni boundary.

Another alternative would be to have a federal-state demonstration project (with contracts in place requiring a continuing level of effort by the state) where money that would have gone to individual Pell grants goes to the college so it is free for everyone.

However, none of that would work without some stricter limits on withdrawals and repeats or some students would hang around forever. You would need to charge for repeating a class.
I would love to see community colleges significantly cheaper than they are now (say, about 10% of the poverty level per year, max), but I share CCPhysicist's concern about withdrawals and repeats.

One thing that I would like to see is a differentiation between 'failed but tried' and 'didn't bother'. I would raise tuition after the first 'didn't bother' but not the first 'failed but tried'.
"One thing that I would like to see is a differentiation between 'failed but tried' and 'didn't bother'. I would raise tuition after the first 'didn't bother' but not the first 'failed but tried'."

How would you tell the difference reliably? When talking with peers, among quite a few right out of High School, "didn't bother" sounds much better than "I'm a failure". Neither reality, nor what they tell their parents are what will be heard on campus, only what is said, so you'll have to recognize that the information you're receiving may not be valid.

Likewise, what do you do when a student receives a grade of "didn't bother", and then files a complaint that the teacher's ideological bias caused them to deliberately punish the trying but underprepared / non-comprehending student for daring to express in class a viewpoint or idea opposed to the instructor's? I believe there are plenty of videos on the internet currently which could be used as proof on that instructor's bias, and how would you go about refuting a claim that those biases weren't responsible for the instructor's decision to grade the student "didn't bother" instead of "failed but tried"?
Do you have an example of an industry where removing pricing from decision-making makes the quality of the decisions better?

Making something theoretically "free" is a recipe for disaster.
I often find myself disagreeing with ED, but... Did you, DD, write about making a nominal cost to some sort of remedial test-prep and finding that when you did that more people attended and had better results?

I'm curious, but have no real idea, whether a very low, but non-free cost is actually better...

Fortunately, Google suggests the post:
It turns out that Quebec has free CEGEP, which (as I've said a few times) covers the first year of university as well as the equivalent to associate's degree programmes. They also position themselves as separate from K12. Although I don't think Quebec universities are well-funded, I think that CEGEPs do OK in terms of funding. The fed/state thing plays out totally differently in Canada, though.

CEGEP students do have to pay for repeat classes.
Anonymous@5:48AM -
Some schools have a different F for students who stopped attending or missed several tests that serves this purpose. In my experience, there is such a thing as a well-earned D that usually promises a pass the next time if the kid doesn't slack.

The counterexample to Edmund Dantes @6:21AM would be the University of California system in the 1950s, which is hardly a failure.

There are also states where HS grads with a certain level of performance got a scholarship that covered or mostly covered tuition (but not room and board) before tuition soared. Because they have to keep up their performance to keep the scholarship, they are motivated to not slack off.
teI went to CUNY near the end of its century-long free days, and I am grateful for the experience. If you check out the success of CUNY grads from the early part of the 20th century to the mid-1970s, it's hard to think of this as a system that didn't work. Even though I'm now retired, I still believe what I believed in 1971: that students have a right to a free education.
Sorry, I missed the response.

"didn't bother" would mean "failed AND did not complete assignments worth more than x% of the grade." The precise percentage is debatable but I would say 30% would be a good mark for uncompleted assignments -- if a student didn't complete assignments worth more than 30% of the grade, they can hardly be said to have even attempted to pass the class.
Can I ask you a question off the subject ? About 20 yrs ago another Student( Tudor) sexually harassed me. I made a small comment to an Instructor ( not reporting it) and he pressed me to report it. I didn't want to but felt pressured.Anyway I did threaten to sue but did not.This was after it was all blown out of prop. Preident of the Comm. College is still there. Could I return to this college? Would they flag my records? The Tudor has grad. Yrs ago.I never dreamed of returning there but I need to cont. my education for my job. I took many classes there and loved the school.
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