EDITORIAL: Free community college

Last week, President Barack Obama announced his latest plan to buy back the political support of struggling young Americans. Dubbed “America’s College Promise,” the program would allow “responsible students” to attend community college tuition-free.

It’s a curious proposition because affordability is not a barrier to enrollment in community colleges, unlike four-year universities. The president’s plan says community college costs about $3,800 a year, although the College Board reports average annual tuition at community colleges is $3,300. Either of those figures might seem high for low-income families, but the figure represents a full course schedule. About two-thirds of community college students attend part-time, because they also work. Plus, students can qualify for financial aid to offset what is already a good value.

Community colleges are an underrated part of the American job-training system. They generally provide smaller class sizes than universities, and if those classes aren’t led by professors, they’re led by educated, experienced professionals. University underclassmen often are instructed by graduate assistants. And community college credits easily transfer to four-year schools — at a fraction of the cost of taking identical courses at universities.

But making community college “free” will overwhelm schools already struggling to manage high enrollments. We know this because the federalization of student loans, the abundance of funds available and the ease with which students can borrow is directly responsible for skyrocketing tuition at four-year colleges. Similarly, the president’s plan will make community college costs explode because of increased demand for seats. People who aren’t prepared for community college would attend anyway because it’s “free,” watering down academic rigor. And federal taxpayers would get the bill.

Subsidies leading to higher costs and an inferior product. Where have we heard that before? Obamacare, of course, which ruined health insurance for tens of millions of Americans to provide a small share of the population with benefits.

The administration estimates America’s College Promise will cost $80 billion over 10 years, but as with all federal undertakings, it will cost far more than that. The beauty of community colleges is the word “community.” They’re supposed to be locally oriented and operated, with the flexibility to adjust to community needs quickly. And now President Obama wants to turn community college education into a federal entitlement — no doubt with more federal oversight.

The Republican Congress should reject this proposal. That may be exactly what the president wants, the better to paint the GOP as anti-education — a label as laughable as “free” community college.

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