'Free' College Schadenfreude

'Free' College Schadenfreude
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It looks like the Biden administration has been forced to dump its plans for “free” community college as Democrats struggle to shrink their gargantuan $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” bill down to a slightly less gargantuan size. The White House proposal, employing the strategy used by the Obamacare-fueled Medicaid expansion, called for using short-term subsidies to bribe states to make community college tuition-free, and then entangling them in a web of federal commitments. It’s a bad policy that’s kinda, sorta dead . . . for now.

Yet, as Inside Higher Ed reported this week in a story headlined, “It’s Not Over Till It’s Over,” advocates for free college “aren’t giving up yet—or anytime soon.” Biden promised in a CNN town hall last week that he’d keep pushing free college. Thirty-two education and civil rights organizations issued a joint statement insisting that they’ll keep at it. And, as one Democratic advocate put it, “I have never seen a major legislative initiative not declared dead at least once before rising from the ashes and being enacted. It’s not over until it’s over, and even then, it’s not over.”

The likelihood that “free” college will rise again makes it worth taking a moment to appreciate the larger implications of this push, in the hope that higher education leaders will reconsider their enthusiasm for a cause they’re likely to regret.

Now, “free college” is a lousy idea for many reasons. As Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Andrew Gillen has noted, “The Biden plan is a solution in search of a problem—on average, we already have free community college.” The College Board, which annually tracks college pricing and aid, shows that, in fact, the net cost of community college (i.e. tuition and fees minus student aid) has been $0 (or lower!) for more than a decade. As Gillen drolly puts it, “We’ve had de facto free community college in this country since 2009-10.”

Meanwhile, the higher education community has steadfastly ignored the potential impact “free” community college promises to have on governance, staffing, and operations. Whereas the Affordable Care Act’s implications for the autonomy of physicians and hospitals was a fierce concern in the medical community back in 2009, the question is rarely asked of free college evangelists.

This is bizarre, given that various free college proposals feature enrollment and spending targets, restrictions on the permissible amount of merit-based financial aid, calls for federal oversight of costs, and more. Indeed, Bernie Sanders’ landmark 2016 free college plan was almost laughable in its sprawling ambitions. Sanders wanted to set federal guidelines for everything from the ratio of adjunct faculty to the provision of campus facilities. While the current proposal doesn’t go as far as Sanders’, it shoves Uncle Sam out onto an icy slope.

And yet the higher education community has been blasé about all of this, if not enthusiastic. Even the private college presidents (whose institutions aren’t included in these proposals) will quietly fret about the implications of having to compete against tuition free public entities, but are reluctant to speak publicly for fear of offending their friends in the deep blue higher education coalition.

College leaders and public colleges that have long pocketed staggering public subsidies would do well to be wary. “Free” college would open the door to lawmakers and federal officials enjoying the same kinds of influence over higher education costs, operations, practices, and reporting that Medicare affords them over participating physicians and hospitals. Colleges should appreciate that entrepreneurial GOP senators could have a field day targeting the bloat, sloth, and ideological bias that too often pass for academic culture.

Indeed, while Biden’s free college proposal is pretty awful as policy, I’ll admit to a bit of schadenfreude at its apparent passing. It would’ve been great fun to see Sen. Tom Cotton start asking questions about what community colleges were doing with these federal “partnership” funds; to see how GOP-led congressional committees might ensure that federal funds were supporting rigorous, nonpolitical instruction; or to see what the next Republican-led Department of Education might require when it comes to spending, reporting, and staffing.  

It’s remarkable that those in the deep blue world of higher education would be so eager to put themselves more directly under Washington’s thumb, when Washington is perhaps the one cultural epicenter where the right is still an equal partner. Here’s hoping that the higher education community comes to its senses and spares both itself and the nation some needless folly.   

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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