Education

An Honest Question

I’ve read that the Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion budget bill, which is likely to be trimmed before heading to a Senate vote via the reconciliation process, has a free community college provision in it. But I haven’t seen much discussion — or any, really — about how the bill proposes to make community college free.

Assuming the bill passes, and the free community college part survives in its present form, what is its present form? In other words, how does the bill propose to make community college free, and for whom?

Aside from my interest as a citizen and an erstwhile political scientist, I’m also interested as a community college administrator. If it were to pass, what should we expect on the ground?

The answer could matter quite a bit.

The ideal would be a system by which we simply bill the feds for the tuition level we set. That way, we could achieve both expanded access and improved service. But I very much doubt it would work that way, if for no other reason than fear of cost spirals. (To be fair, the cost spirals in health care offer a cautionary tale.) It would also effectively reward the states that have failed to support public higher ed, and punish the ones that stepped up. “Cost-plus” arrangements may be normal for military contractors, but they’d be considered profligate when applied to education.

They might do a form of means testing, perhaps by tinkering with the limits for Pell Grants. Increases to Pell are good, as far as they go, but they’re a far cry from free community college. And since Pell goes to the student rather than the institution, the only way for the institution to benefit would be to raise tuition. That would seem to defeat the purpose, especially for students whose incomes are just slightly above the cutoff.

Means testing has a way of falling short of reality, especially over time. Eventually, to the extent that programs are identified with the poor, they become poor programs.

Theoretically, they could instead provide direct operating aid to community colleges. But I really don’t see that happening within our federal system.

They could do some sort of grants-in-aid arrangement by which they match and multiply the operating aid from states. That would actually make a great deal of sense and would incentivize the desired behavior by states. But the experience with Medicaid suggests that many states would turn down free money for a social good, simply out of political spite.

More worryingly, many of these measures could prove politically fragile over time. The next time party control shifts, which it will, anything that doesn’t have deep and solid support would be vulnerable to elimination or evisceration. I’d hate to see colleges assume that some new funding mechanism is the new normal and adjust their operations and budgets accordingly, only to be left high and dry the next time party control changes.

I’ve written before of some alternatives that I suspect would be culturally sturdy enough to survive shifts in the political winds, such as an “earned” free second year upon successful completion of a paid first year. Benefits perceived as earned are much harder to cut. But I’m less focused on that than on what’s actually on the table. Assuming it might pass, we need to start making contingency plans that include the contingency of the next Congress cutting it off at the knees.

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