Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some More Thoughts on "Free" Community College


It should go without saying -- but of course it can never go without saying -- that I oppose any and all government involvement in education.

That said, I do find US president Barack Obama's "free" community college proposal interesting and I suspect that if the state is going to heavily subsidize college educations, this may actually end up being a money-saver.

I thought I'd do some cost comparisons, but the numbers are hard to find (it took me about 15 minutes just to find a raw annual state funding number for the University of Florida) and even harder to do the possible cost-saving math on (because not all of that funding actually has to do with educating or otherwise subsidizing students per se, and then there would need to be a breakdown of the subsidies by year -- e.g. a graduate student in physics is probably more subsidized than a freshman student in English literature). But here's my very, very rough analysis of it as policy:

- Last time I checked, which was 20 years or so ago and only relating to one university (Southwest Missouri State University), if a student showed up to SMSU with no student loans, no government financial aid, no scholarships, etc. -- that is, if the student paid all the demanded tuition and fees entirely out of pocket -- the state of Missouri was still subsidizing that student's education to the tune of 2/3 of total cost.

- State universities are huge money pits. They aren't just buildings with classrooms and teachers. They're small cities. They have their own power plants. They have their own streets. They have their own police departments. They have their own hospitals, or at least clinics. They house most of their students in dorms. They feed most of their students at cafeterias. Any given faculty member is likely to spend at least some time doing research and such rather than only teaching. They have sports programs (some of the most successful ones, in men's football and basketball in particular, may make rather than lose money for the school, but probably not most of them).

- Community colleges don't require nearly as much infrastructure. They don't house their students. They don't feed their students. Their teachers teach full-time rather than splitting their salaried hours between teaching and research. They may have a security guard or three but for the most part their police service is the local police department. The electricity, etc. they buy may be more expensive per kilowatt hour than generating themselves, but they don't have the costs of power plant construction and maintenance to worry about. They have some parking lots to maintain, but not an extensive internal street system.

So when you look at state/taxpayer subsidies to education, it may actually be cheaper to tell a student "if you go to community college and maintain a 2.5 GPA, you don't have to pay anything" than to tell a student "come to this public university and shell out big bucks -- but not nearly big enough bucks to even come close to covering what we're spending."

Then again, it may be a wash. It's vanishingly unlikely that state university budgets will capture 100% of any overall cost savings. Their power plants may not have to burn as much coal, but they'll still be staffed. Their streets may not be as heavily trafficked, but there will be a base cost of maintenance. They may not maintain their faculty sizes, but university staffing won't go down in direct proportion to the decreases in student body size. And so on and so forth.

I suspect that there will be more Republican buy-in to this than you might expect. A long time ago, my late ex-father-in-law told me (I never checked) that Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, proposed something that sounds a lot like this. The model state Obama rolled his plan out in is Tennessee, where Republican governor Bill Haslam oversaw something similar.

My guess is that Obama's proposal will result in something that looks like what he proposed. It may take a couple of years (while the two parties' politicians jockey for position on taking credit for it, etc.), but if I had to bet, I'd bet that by 2020, community college will be "free."

I doubt that anyone has to wonder why I keep putting scare quotes around "free," but just in case: There ain't no such thing as a free education. Someone has to pay for it. What Obama is proposing is a 100% taxpayer subsidy. That's not "free." But you knew that already, didn't you?

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