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Critics Call Free Community College A Plan To Subsidize Failure

Critics are charging that President Barack Obama’s proposal to publicly fund community college tuition would amount to a lavish subsidy for schools, but would do little to reduce costs or improve success rates for students.

According to a White House press release on Friday, the America’s College Promise plan would “make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost.”

The plan may involve no costs for students, but taxpayers are a different story. The White House estimates that the plan could save as many as 9 million students about $3,800 annually, which translates to an annual cost of about $34.2 billion. (RELATED: Obama to Propose TWO FREE YEARS of Community College)

The federal government would cover 75 percent of the program’s cost, or about $25.6 billion if the estimates prove accurate, while states that elect to participate in the program would cover the remaining 25 percent.

Obama is touting the plan as a way to boost economic growth, saying it would expand access to higher education for low-income students and allow community colleges to “partner with employers to create tailored training programs to meet economic needs within their communities.”

But in an op-ed for The Daily Signal on Friday, Lindsey Burke contends that the plan is unlikely to accomplish those objectives, and “will serve as little more than a federal handout to the community college system.”

For one thing, she says low-income students already have the ability to finance community college through federal Pell Grants, which Obama has dramatically expanded since taking office, raising the maximum award by nearly $1,000 and doubling the number of recipients.

Despite the expanded tuition assistance, Burke points out that the community college system “hasn’t exactly produced stellar outcomes” to this point: Current estimates suggest that a mere 20 percent of current first-year students will complete their studies within 150 percent of the standard time, and only about 34 percent are expected to graduate at all.

Andrew Kelly, in an op-ed for Forbes, explains that, “The implicit assumption of free-tuition plans is that the main reason students don’t finish community college is the cost of tuition,” but says he is skeptical of that claim. (RELATED: More Bang for Your Buck: Community College Grads Earn More)

Already, he says, “around 50-60 percent of community college students are not college-ready,” and subsidizing tuition will do nothing to improve either student preparedness or, if the government’s record on K-12 education is any guide, the quality of instruction.

Whether the program would prove effective or not, though, Burke wonders, “what is to prevent community colleges from escalating tuition and fees once the federal government—via taxpayers—begins paying the tab?”

The White House is hoping to pre-empt that sort of exploitation by tying the federal subsidy to the average cost of community college tuition, but Burke argues that, “we’ll most certainly see the cost of ‘average’ increase in the years to come thanks to this new federal largesse.”

The real driver of tuition increases is “the open spigot of federal student aid,” she insists, noting that, “over the past several decades, college costs have risen at more than twice the rate of inflation, thanks in large part to federal subsidies.” (RELATED: Community College Tuition—and Enrollment—Go Up)

Kelly explains that, “A public option would change who pays for higher education, but not necessarily how much it costs to provide it,” and so would merely shield students from tuition increases by spreading the costs among all taxpayers.

Moreover, he claims that if the program were to be limited to public community colleges, it might even accelerate the rate of tuition increases by crowding the private sector out of the higher education market, thereby stifling innovations that could lower costs and improve student success rates, while simultaneously encouraging complacency at public institutions.

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

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