Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Continuing Adventures of Free College

For those of us who follow the evolution of free community college as an idea, it has been quite a week.

Last week, New Jersey finally got around to extending “Free Community College” to all of its community colleges, instead of just the initial 13.  It was certainly welcome, even though awarding it retroactively creates a non-trivial task for the FInancial Aid office.

New Jersey’s version of free community college is somewhat attenuated.  Most basically, it sets a hard household income cap of $45,000, which, in this part of the country, leaves out a lot of people who are really struggling.  But it’s a start.

Meanwhile, Washington State is likely about to pass a much more progressive version.  Its version has a higher cap for “Free,” and a higher cap still -- up to the median income -- for extra help.  More encouragingly, it also sets aside new pots of _operating_ funding to “recession-proof” the state’s colleges and universities, and to add capacity in expensive and high-demand areas like computer science and health care.

Operating funds are the most important part of the budget, and the hardest to come by.  They’re what pay for salaries, utilities, and all manner of recurring short-term costs. (Capital funds, by contrast, pay for buildings, renovations, and the like.)  Any increase to enrollment that doesn’t come with operating funds shifts a larger proportion of the budget to tuition. Adequate operating funds prevent layoffs. Inadequate operating funds cause them.  Kudos to Washington State for recognizing that.

Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner argued in the Washington Post that free college, in just about every version that currently exists, is regressive.  Reading that piece, I was reminded of the distinction between policy analysts and political scientists. Baum and Turner aren’t wrong in some of the short-term impacts they cite, but they miss the big picture completely.  

Means-tested programs have higher overhead and less political support over time than universal programs do.  That makes them more vulnerable to shifting political winds. Public libraries, for instance, don’t means-test their patrons; Mark Zuckerberg himself could borrow books for free if he wanted to.  That saves them the cost of staffing an office to do the means-testing, and it saves patrons the hassle of proving they need help. It also prevents the inevitable disappointment when people who are just over the income threshold for help discover that they’re on their own.  I suspect that’s part of why we rarely hear full-scale political assaults on public libraries.

Or compare the political fate of Social Security to that of “welfare.”  Keeping it simple -- hit a certain age and you get paid -- keeps it popular.  Yes, Social Security is more graduated than public libraries, and it has certain gaps often founded on racial and gender exclusions, but it’s still built on universality.  That’s what makes it work, politically.

Baum and Turner’s critique holds political support constant, and instead looks at efficiency.  The argument is that with a universal benefit, some people who don’t “need” help will get help.  

Which is true at the micro level.  Mark Zuckerberg can afford to buy his own books.  But it’s false at the macro level. You can’t hold political support constant.  Programs for the poor become poor programs. Political support is not constant, but it is predictable.  Offering a benefit to the middle- and upper-middle-classes helps maintain their political support for that benefit.  (The ultra-wealthy generally ignore such benefits entirely.) It also gets around the deadweight costs and hassles -- inefficiencies entirely ignored in Baum and Turner’s analysis -- of income verification.

Given my druthers, what would a free community college program ideally look like?

  • No income cap.  Make community college as available as the public library.  Make living cost stipends available, and rely on progressive taxation* to tax them back from folks who are already wealthy.  This will have the benefit of greatly reducing financial aid bureaucracy, and of putting the FAFSA out of our misery.
  • No post-graduation residency requirement.  Let people go where the opportunity is, or where the future spouse is, or just where they want to be.  Tying the peasants to the land is not how a free society should work.
  • Significant _operating_ fund support for the institutions directly.  If price controls lead to continued watering-down of the quality of education, we will have missed the point.
  • Open to students regardless of age.  Let the new high-school grad take advantage, and let the returning forty-year-old single parent take advantage.  

Lest this sound like dorm-room philosophizing or a misplaced Scandinavian pining for the fjords, it’s a decent description of CUNY prior to the mid-1970’s.  It’s how CUNY worked under such raving socialists as William McKinley, Warren Harding, and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s American, and it’s entirely doable. We just have to choose to do it.

When stark raving communist Andrew Carnegie endowed all those public libraries, he was hoping to raise the educational level of the country.  The basic idea still applies.

Kudos to New Jersey for its tentative first steps, and to Washington State for its much more ambitious version.  Let’s not let superficially “rigorous” analyses that leave politics out of the equation distract us. Fairness is a conscious choice.  Let’s make it.

*or, if the MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) folks are correct, the Feds could support free community college without increasing taxation at all.  I don’t know if they’re right, but it’s a tough idea to refute. For a great intro, follow Stephanie Kelton online.