‘Free’ community college education? Bait-and-switch

Anyone who has ever taken a road trip with a youngster has heard the plaintive query: “are we there yet?” That’s pretty much the way I feel about the fundamental change Obama promised America. Have we changed enough, or is there more coming?

President Obama announced a new program just this past week that brings my impatience once again into focus: free education at the community college level.

“Oh come on,” you say, “what could be wrong with more education?” I even saw someone support the idea with the observation that better educated citizens would get better paying jobs, so they would pay more in income tax and that would offset the cost of the “free” education.

The first thing that’s wrong about the promise is it’s dishonest. The advanced education will not be free. The plan as sketchily outlined so far is the Federal government will pay approximately three-quarters of the education and the states will pay one-quarter. What? Someone has to pay for this free education? Oh, I see, it’s not “free” after all.

Perhaps it’s free to the person going to community college, but it’s not free to taxpayers in general. So this is a bait-and-switch deal: the government says your advanced education is free, but pays for it with taxpayer money at the state and federal level.

And having the federal government commit state funds removes decision-making from state legislators. If I were a state assemblyman I would tell the Feds that I wanted to prioritize state resource allocation, not have them dictate to me where I had to put taxpayer money. Remember how federal funding for “cops on the beat” left municipalities to pick up funding for police when the program’s funds dried up? That was for several tens of thousands of police officers. Imagine what the bill will be for millions of community college students, plus the buildings and staff to support this large influx.

“But how can you be against education?” you ask. “How can you give up millions of federal dollars?” Given this administration’s record on truthfulness in designing and creating federal programs I think the better question is “how can we let the government destroy yet another valued resource.” The old saying what you get for free is worth every cent of what you pay for is true here. Can anyone seriously believe “free” higher education will be as good as what we have now?

To begin with, there are 1,729 two-year colleges in the U.S. handling less than half the potential population.

A program like what is being proposed will require more than doubling that number, along with tens of thousands of instructors, administrators, and ancillary staff. How can we seriously consider building more brick-and-mortar institutions when education these days is increasingly being done online and colleges are hiring ever more adjunct professors to hold down costs?

This is as poorly thought-out a proposal as Cash for Clunkers, only it’s focused on people who want a better life for their children. That makes it about as cynical as the youngster who kills his parents and asks the judge for leniency because he’s an orphan. It’s a cruel bit of electioneering that will dwarf California’s high speed rail project for pandering to voting blocs, and it’s every bit as certain to fail.

Are we there yet?

Fred LaSor lives in Minden, where he follows international developments and politics closely.


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