It’s fun to imagine something nice. Giving all community college students free tuition for the first two years would be a wonderful boost for students who are likely struggling to stay in school. It would keep students, many likely to be low income, from taking on burdensome loans. It would expand opportunity.
But while there would likely be debate about key parts of this idea—Do America’s community colleges have the capacity to serve more students than already crowd their campuses?—Wouldn’t it be better to make the program means-tested to leverage support for the students who most need the help?—it really looks as though this can’t possibly be a serious proposal, however nice it sounds. It all comes down to the arithmetic and all the other necessary programs that would have to be frozen or cut to make this new one a reality.
President Obama’s proposal is that the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost of two years of community college tuition for all students in states that would agree to cover 25 percent.
Many states are mired in austerity budgeting as tax revenues have not fully rebounded since the 2008 recession and because many of their legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s pledge never to vote for raising taxes. However, while thirty of the states continue to budget less for K-12 public education than in 2007—prior to the recession, state budgetary cuts for public higher education have been even greater according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Forty-eight states—all except Alaska and North Dakota—are spending less per student (to support their public colleges and universities) than they did before the recession… The average state is spending $2,026 or 23 percent less per student than before the recession.”
Last October, the Center on American Progress reported: “Between 2008 and 2012, the share of students borrowing to finance their education increased from 35 to 40 percent, and the average amount borrowed annually increased from $6,200 to $7,800. Since the Great Recession, states have withdrawn public investment in higher education, and many students from low-and middle-income families have been pushed out of pubic colleges and universities.”
With states depending far more on tuition payments instead of public investment to cover the costs of their public colleges and universities, President Obama’s idea for tuition assistance seems particularly enticing, but one wonders where the states that have been slashing their investment in public higher education due to revenue shortfalls will find the money to pay 25 percent of the cost of covering two years of tuition for all students at their community colleges.
Then there is the question of where Congress would find the money to pay for 75 percent of the President’s new program. The administration estimates that 9 million students would be eligible to have their tuition waived for two years.
According to the New America Foundation, “In the current fiscal year 2014, the Pell Grant program provided nearly 9 million students with aid at a cost of nearly $30 billion. The program receives a larger share of the federal education budget than any other program.” Does the president believe the proposed community college tuition program would be offset by a comparable reduction in the need for Pell Grants? Such a scenario is difficult to imagine, as many college students in their third and fourth years depend upon Pell Grant support.
The other two largest federal education funding streams support urgently needed K-12 public education programs—the IDEA and Title I, and both remain vastly under-funded. When it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, Congress informally agreed to cover 40 percent of the cost every year. Over the years as more categories of children have been added to those covered by the IDEA, the federal government has failed to meet its financial commitment to the school districts federal law guarantees will provide special services. For 2014, Congress appropriated $11.5 billion for IDEA, remibursing only 16 percent of the cost of educating children with special needs under the IDEA.
And the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Title I formula program, designed to assist schools serving a large number or large percentage of children living in poverty, has never been funded adequately to support all the schools that serve children in poverty. (Congress recently appropriated $14.4 billion for the Title I program for the current fiscal year.) Although money was pumped into the Title I formula in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus, that money has long since been spent. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports: “Since 2010, federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.” (To his credit, in a major policy address yesterday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the administration will add $1 billion to Title I in its 2015 budget proposal to Congress. Assuming the extra dollars are for the formula program that drives money directly to classrooms and not for the competitive programs to which the administration has been diverting money from the Title I formula, this is an important move on the part of the Obama administration.)
In a piece at Politico entitled Obama Education Legacy: Pomp and Fizzle?, Stephanie Simon describes the arrival of President Obama’s proposal for covering community college tuition: “President Barack Obama’s proposal to give millions of students free tuition at community colleges made a big splash on Friday, as the administration had intended. But the moment also exposed the limits of Obama’s power on education, as his ambitions for big, legacy-defining initiatives run smack into a buzzsaw of opposition from across the political spectrum. Congress is highly unlikely to approve a new entitlement with an estimated price tag of $60 billion over the next decade. Republicans quickly dismissed the college proposal as a political stunt. And leading Democrats expressed, at best, polite support.”