Free Community College Is Already Here
It is hardly a surprise that President Obama would propose an expensive new entitlement without specifying a way to pay for it. What is surprising is that the president would make such a policy, funded 75 percent by Washington in partnership with the states, the centerpiece of his State of the Union address without at least checking to see if something better was already being implemented.
In 2004, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Hartford, Conn. -- where I was executive director at the time -- decided to compare the full tuition at each of the state's community-college campuses with the per pupil cost for a single year of high school in the state's 169 towns. Discovering that a two-year associate's degree from a community college was actually cheaper than the senior year of high school -- and that the state's requirements for graduating from public school are easily met by the end of the junior year -- we made a simple proposal: Give any student who wishes to graduate from high school in three years a free community-college scholarship.
If gradually phased in, such a policy would be more than paid for by eliminating the public-school teaching positions no longer needed. Even when accounting for the fixed costs of keeping a high school's lights on (e.g., oil, insurance) the property owners who largely subsidize public education would get a tax reduction -- as much as $116 million across Connecticut in 2004, we calculated. And if done through attrition, no teacher would have to be let go. President Obama's plan, by contrast, would cost taxpayers $6 billion per year.
The Yankee Institute proposal has several other advantages over the president's:
• The amount of the community-college scholarship could be spent anywhere, even at the most elite colleges. While it would hardly cover the tuition at an Ivy League school, it could certainly make a difference for a student whose first-choice school didn't offer quite enough financial aid.
• The federal government would not have to intrude on states' traditional regulation of community colleges.
• Students bored with high school could get out early. As Bard College president Leon Botstein observed in his book Jefferson's Children, keeping young people in public school too long is a major social problem, responsible for needless instances of drug abuse and dangerous driving. Bard itself has a policy of admitting high-school students after they've completed their junior year.
• The president himself concedes that community-college scholarships should be earned, in his plan by maintaining a 2.5 GPA. What better and fairer way to earn a college scholarship than by saving your home school district the unnecessary cost of your senior year?
• Early graduation lowers the need for new school construction in growing communities, which can be especially expensive in states with "highest prevailing wage" laws. These statutes require that workers on public building projects be paid far in excess of what they could reasonably charge in the open market.
• By reducing their high-school teaching staff, towns get better control over the growing problem of unaffordable public-employee pensions.
In late 2004, the Yankee Institute elaborated its proposal in a study titled "The Early Graduation Reward Plan." For a policy paper, it received an unusual amount of press attention, including a front-page story in President Obama's hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune. In less than three years Arizona, Texas, and Utah became the first states to adopt the policy. Today seven states have it.
An updated version of the paper ("Free College for High School Students") in 2007 had tables suggesting how much a community could actually save, depending on the percentage of its high-school seniors that qualified for the scholarships. While some might argue that early graduation scholarships deprive those seniors left behind of enough teachers to offer electives, the growing availability of quality high-school courses over the Internet would seem to solve that objection.
The fact is that free community college is a reality in many states. Add to this the fact that Florida, Idaho, and Minnesota encourage public-school students to complete their senior year with college-level courses at nearby institutions, and the tools the president thinks states need to make higher education more affordable are already available.
The question is not how to raise a new multi-billion-dollar federal subsidy for free community college. The real question is why the president, in a time when Washington needs to show it can spend wisely, wants more money to solve a problem that has already been solved.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009 and is author of To Thine Own Self Be True: The Relationship Between Spiritual Values and Emotional Health (Doubleday).