Monday, January 12, 2015

About That "Free" Community College

Of course everyone who reads this page regularly can recite from rote that "there's no such thing as a free lunch", or a free community college in this sense.  The president's plan, is adding two years to public education at an estimated cost of $60 billion over 10 years

To begin with, I hate numbers like that.  There is simply no way to know what assumptions are ground into that sausage: do they linearly increase it by year, do they assume no cost now and totally load it into the last years (as they always do with proposed budget cuts).  So let's start with the simplest assumption: linear, constant per year of $6 billion. 

The US Census clock says there are 320 Million Americans.  To the best accuracy I can determine using the Debt Clock's ratios, it seems there are 117.4 Million taxpayers.  That means every taxpayer's bill goes up by $51.  Of course, that is absolutely not how taxes are distributed; it will be paid by the top quintile of taxpayers, just as the highest incomes pay the biggest percentage of taxes now.

As is usually the case with his speeches and handouts, it displays a stunning ignorance of how the world works.  The president asserts that since current community college attendees appear to have an increased value in the job market, we should create more of them.  This belies complete ignorance of the law of supply and demand.  If people coming out of community college make more than high school graduates it's because they are worth more to employers.  To create more of them is to reduce their differential value. 

Simply stated, if everyone goes to community college, there's nothing to distinguish the community college graduates.  It becomes the same as high school.  It's already regularly referred to as 13th and 14th grade, this program will formalize it. 

Which leads to an uncomfortable truth.  The public education system is a wretched failure.  A 2004 study (pdf warning) by the American Enterprise Institute found that 68% of community college students had to take remedial classes to be ready for college, with the typical number of classes being three.  So their public education isn't preparing them for 13th grade as it is.  Then there's the uncomfortable fact that over the last 40 years, high school test scores are independent of the amount spent on education; they're the same regardless of spending or the number of staff per student.  
In four year colleges, it's pretty obvious that the Federal rush to fund college educations has raised the cost of college; college tuition has increased at three times the increase in the cost of living and just about twice the increase in medical costs over the last 37 years.  
Look at it this way: there's only so many colleges and so many chairs in them.  Only so many butts will fit in those chairs.  If the demand goes up for those seats because more people can afford to go, what else is going to happen when demand goes up but supply doesn't?  Or from the colleges' standpoint, if all that money is available for students, why shouldn't they suck it up? 

So the president's plan will drive up the cost of community colleges and institutionalize the two year degree as extended high school, which will make the achievement of students continue on the same trajectory as high school.  I have to assume it will impose new levels of work on the Colleges' part to comply with the Federal paperwork (there's always more paperwork).  After a few years of adaptation, the college inflation will require completing a BS instead of community college to get a little competitive advantage.  As it is, only certain BS degrees have actual value in the market.  That will remain true.    


  1. It's not about creating a better workforce. It IS all about more jobs for teachers' union members at taxpayer expense, and the resultant dues from those members to the DNC.

  2. Beyond adding thousands more unemployed college graduates (and an AA or AS degree is worthless unless it is in a trade or technical field, like nursing or auto mechanics), there is a bigger problem, as you mentioned: it will give the Federal government more (complete?) control over the curricula.

    I can see it now: an Associate of Arts degree in Multi-Cultural Sensitivity Training, with an emphasis on Respecting islamic Culture; Criminal Justice - Enforcing Sharia; Graphic Arts - Avoiding Images of Mo-Pork-Ed, or Mention of the Ten Commandments.

  3. Education is a failure because no one involved wants an education.

    Most of the students are more interested in texting each other and socializing than they are in learning. They pretend to work so they can stay out of trouble.

    The parents just want their kid to get good grades. They don't care if the kid learns anything, they just don't want some teacher "ruining the kids' chances at college by giving them bad grades." Every time Johnny or Suzie get a bad grade, they demand a parent-teacher conference and want to know why the teacher still works there, since they are obviously incapable of teaching, as evidenced by their little snowflake's receiving poor marks. They then say that if the child's grades don't improve, they are returning with their lawyer.

    Some teachers cave to this, and give out C and higher grades so they can keep their jobs and stop getting hassled by helicopter parents.

    The school administrators just want to avoid lawsuits. They try to play both sides and avoid lawsuits. I have seen cases where students physically attack teachers, and where students sexually assault fellow students and teachers, and it is all swept under the rug.

    It's a mess.

  4. Divemedic is right, as far as I can tell, and he has an insider's view. Listen to what he's saying.

  5. Fifteen years ago, when I returned to college to become a registered nurse, the younger students would openly tell the instructors/profs, "I don't want to know anything but what is going to be on the tests." Some of them would become disruptive if those of us who wanted to _learn_ asked questions and dialoged with the instructor during class.

  6. "This belies complete ignorance of the law of supply and demand. If people coming out of community college make more than high school graduates it's because they are worth more to employers. To create more of them is to reduce their differential value. "

    There is not enough information to make this claim. We would have to know the job inventory level as well as the (supposed) increased number of college grads. It might be that the increased supply of such grads still doesn't meet the demand for them. Also, it discounts the possibility of entrepreneurship by assuming that all increases in value will come by filling positions in extant businesses. There is no known capacity on entrepreneurship in our (or any) economy.

    "Look at it this way: there's only so many colleges and so many chairs in them. Only so many butts will fit in those chairs. If the demand goes up for those seats because more people can afford to go, what else is going to happen when demand goes up but supply doesn't?"

    Another statement that cannot be validated without more information. The increased demand for "chairs" may still not occupy the available supply, and even if it does, and even if college prices skyrocket, that still doesn't address the government's claim that this is a wise investment which will generate an excellent ROI for our economy.

    As for divermedic's hyperbole, "Education is a failure because no one involved wants an education" it is easy to disprove. I was educated, and I wanted it. My niece is currently in school, and she wants to receive her education. A friend of mine is a former math teacher, currently in school administration. He loves his job, loves helping students, considers his job a great honor, a great responsibility, and a great privilege.
    Ergo, divermedic's statement is false.

    Not saying this program is destined to be a success. Could be a train wreck that ends the world as we know it. But hyperbole and invalid claims don't advance the debate.

  7. Speedrrracer - don't believe in supply and demand? Don't think that raising the supply of something will always lower the differential cost?

    Wait, is that you Dr. Bernanke?

    Your arguments show me you didn't really read what I wrote. If the curve of the cost of education outstripping by 3x the increase in cost of everything else doesn't make it obvious that there's more demand (and money to back it up with) than supply of college seats, I don't know what to tell you. If you think community college graduates aren't being paid more than non-graduates because there's fewer of them, likewise.

    Look, I'm a public school graduate, too. I wanted the education. It seems a waste of time to write this, but when someone writes a statement like Divemedic's, it can't possibly apply to all kids in public school. One of my privileges as an engineer is to work with the best of the best coming out of public schools. They're just as good as ever. Their presence, however, does nothing to affect the observation that there is a genuine problem with public schooling. The fact that test scores are unchanged on a percentage basis when spending on that education has gone up is an argument that Divemedic is right and the problem is in the student's chair, not the teacher's.

    Likewise, again it seems a waste of time to write this, but these are more "big picture" ideas than tabular data on the number of jobs, college seats, etc.. Opinion, not facts.