Community College Courtesy of the Federal Taxpayer? No Thanks

Word came out last night that in a speech in Tennessee today President Obama will propose that two years of community college be made free to all “responsible” students, primarily funded by federal taxpayers. But one look at either community college outcomes or labor market outlooks reveals this to be educational folly.

The fact of the matter, according to the federal government’s own data, is that community college completion rates are atrocious. The federal Digest of Education Statistics reports that a mere 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their programs within 150 percent of the time they are supposed to take. So less than 20 percent finish a two-year degree within three years, or a 10-month certificate program within 15 months. And that rate has been dropping almost every year since the cohort of students that started in 2000, which saw 23.6 percent complete. Moreover, as I itemize in a post at SeeThruEDU.com, even when you add transfers to four-year schools, the numbers don’t improve very much. Meanwhile, interestingly, the for-profit sector that has been so heavily demonized by the administration has an almost 63 percent completion rate at two-year institutions, and that has been rising steadily since the 2000 cohort.

The other huge problem is that the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require postsecondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects to see the greatest total growth by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of postsecondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. Most of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no way to look at this proposal (at least as it has been spelled out so far), investigate the reality of community college, and conclude anything other than it is a terrible idea.