When Free Becomes Worthless

 

640A recent study compares — among other things — the average lifetime earnings of folks with an associate’s degree to the average earnings of those who lack any college degree. There are several reasons why one would expect that the educated person, even with such a nominal degree, would come out on top of these statistics. The degree itself might be causative, having provided valuable skills directly related to employment, or it may be indicative of the students’ drive and will to achieve. Alternatively, it may say little about community college students, but much about those without a college eduction regarding their motivation, intelligence, and discipline, or their particular circumstances.

If one considers just how inexpensive community college is — without even considering how easy it is to finance it — it’s difficult to presume that anyone would feel “left behind” because of its cost. Quite the opposite. It is far more likely that some people who have considered but passed on junior college, have simply rejected it for lack of value, not because of cost.

So what would be accomplished if junior college were tuition free, as the president proposes? First and foremost, it would place pressure on our other public universities who compete with community colleges for students. The relationship between two- and four-year schools is currently cordial, even cooperative: credits for junior college coursework are readily accepted and transferred to four-year schools, and two-year professional programs in teaching, engineering, accounting and nursing are often integrated with four year bachelor’s degree programs. This cooperation exists because — despite the community college system’s current and significant cost advantage — two-year schools act as a kind of farm system, a feeder program that weeds out nominal students who lack focus and drive.

I suspect that if community colleges were suddenly free for students and dependent on federal and state programs for all funding, they would do whatever they could to attract more funding: that is, expand and attract those currently disinclined to attend. This would likely not result in a renewed focus on the more-taxing STEM classes or successful professional feeder programs, but would be much more likely result in an expansion of less-taxing areas of study that have less practical value in the job marketplace.

While this transformation occurs, I expect that many highly-motivated but cost-conscious prospective students will see zero tuition as a way to avoid the price of their first two years of college. Four-year schools will find it difficult to compete with zero tuition, especially among those who lack focus or guidance (but enroll anyway and pay full tuition.) I suspect enrollment will drop in four year programs — with a resultant drops in tuition revenue and government subsidy — causing their administrators and faculty to lobby for an increase in funding to offset their unfair losses. Cooperation with junior colleges will break down; coursework will not be credited and feeder programs dropped. Four-year schools will be forced to do everything in their power to depreciate the value of two-year degree. It’s their only defense.

So what will the final outcome be? As the government pays for more nominal enrollees in community college taking classes of questionable value in the workplace, free will quickly become worthless (or worse). With no “skin in the game” there will be no incentive for community college students to follow any particular path, develop any particular skill, or finish in any particular time. Community college — already “something to do” — devolves into a place to go, rather than a means to discover a career or to develop marketable skills. And as for it being a stepping stone to a four-year degree, expect that the four-year programs will abruptly close those doors.

It’s like getting your neighbor to pay for your gym membership. Or maybe it’s you paying for his? Thanks, Obama.

Image Credit: “Greendale Campus,” via www.community-sitcom.wikia.com.

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  1. user_1030767 Inactive
    user_1030767
    @TheQuestion

    Yes.  I work at a community college.  Politics does not come up much at all at work.  I was imagining that the people I worked with would be favorable toward’s Obama’s plan.  But, I was pleasantly surprised to hear one colleague state that some people make a business out of getting financial aid, and Obama’s proposal would make that problem worse.  I don’t know what this person’s political leanings are, but I was glad to hear that some people can see through this.

    • #1
  2. user_1029039 Coolidge
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    anonymous: It becomes the path of least resistance for high school graduates who aren’t qualified for four year colleges and don’t want to enter the real world of employment.  When you’re 18 years old, two more years (or more: look at the completion rates) of non-demanding zero cost classroom attendance may seem like an eternity.

    vide: The Job Corps.

    • #2
  3. Mallard Inactive
    Mallard
    @Mallard

    “The Plan” calls for maintaining a minimum 2.5GPA. Grade inflation over the last 30 years is already a fact & under this plan it will get worse. Once the community college realizes that they’ll loose a customer if they fall below 2.5 the “B’s” will be handed out freely. Pulling a >3.0GPA was once something that required hard work. Under this plan it’ll be SOP. A student could pull a B average & never leave the Student Union Building!

    Secondly, we’ll introduce a third payer system to community college – the Feds. We’ve seen this before, namely in health care. Once the customer no longer sees the cost &  pays the freight they stop caring about how much it is. If you think college costs went through the roof over the last 20-30 years you ain’t seen nothing yet.

    This plan is a dog & should be put down without delay!!

    • #3
  4. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Part of the signaling value of education is the cost. Eliminating the cost will reduce the value of the degree by itself. This is mostly a rearticulation of the OP and comments, but the associates degree will become what a high school diploma is now, probably even practically worthless. If everyone stands up at a concert, no one can see better. If everyone gets a 2-year degree, a 2-year degree doesn’t mean anything, accept wasted time and forgone income.

    • #4
  5. user_340536 Member
    user_340536
    @ShaneMcGuire

    Doug–I’m not sure free community college will pull many kids away from four year schools, though i’m sure it would increase population.

    The cost savings one enjoys from attending community college for two years is already tens of thousands of dollars. A semester of community college in Texas will run you about a thousand dollars, so it seems that making it “free” just tacks on another four grand in savings. Maybe that’s the tipping point, but if saving twenty thousand dollars won’t get you to go Juco, i don’t see how saving twenty four thousand would.

    Additionally, making it free may also lower the perceived value and quality of junior college. The cheapness of Juco, along with the fact that it is already perceived as 13th and 14th grade by a lot of people, already gives going to junior college a stigma.

    I went to Juco my first two years back in the late ’90s. Wrote a check for tuition each semester. It was great.

    • #5
  6. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    One of my associates at the ChicagoBoyz blog teaches at a community college, and she says the students there don’t follow a typical bell-shaped curve: rather, they follow what she calls a “bra curve.” The right cup of the bra consists of those students, usually older, who seriously want to pursue career advancement; the left cup consists of those who are there because their parents made them go.

    “Free” community college would probably increase the size of the left cup, with malign consequences for the overall culture of these institutions.

    • #6
  7. user_6179 Inactive
    user_6179
    @KatrinaGulliver

    Shane McGuire:Doug–I’m not sure free community college will pull many kids away from four year schools, though i’m sure it would increase population.

    The cost savings one enjoys from attending community college for two years is already tens of thousands of dollars. A semester of community college in Texas will run you about a thousand dollars, so it seems that making it “free” just tacks on another four grand in savings. Maybe that’s the tipping point, but if saving twenty thousand dollars won’t get you to go Juco, i don’t see how saving twenty four thousand would.

    Additionally, making it free may also lower the perceived value and quality of junior college. The cheapness of Juco, along with the fact that it is already perceived as 13th and 14th grade by a lot of people, already gives going to junior college a stigma.

    I went to Juco my first two years back in the late ’90s. Wrote a check for tuition each semester. It was great.

    I agree with this. Students (or rather their parents) who are paying for State U are not suddenly going to say “Oh, community college is free now! Go there instead”. For this reason I don’t think four-year institutions are going to start losing students (although I can see some open-enrolment state colleges deciding that actually they don’t need to admit everyone, and becoming more selective). All but the crappiest schools in this country are turning applicants away.

    I am guessing most of the intended beneficiaries of this plan are not traditional-age college students, but older workers who need to retrain to apply for other jobs (or who need some certification to advance in the job they already have). This population is the one currently targeted by for-profit schools (a scam that has been running for some time). It’s thanks to those slimy enterprises that you find a lot of people (naive people, for sure, who overestimated the value of a “degree” in cosmetology or hotel management or whatever) who are a hundred grand in the hole for a qualification they didn’t even finish. People who never went to college, don’t know people who went to college, but who have been told repeatedly that a “college education” is the path to success, are not always in the best position to judge what is a legit school and what’s a diploma mill.

    Completion rates at CC are also a sticky issue: one has to consider that a number of enrollees never intended to complete any type of qualification – just to take a particular course of interest. I guess this program will mean I can go and do a language course at the local CC for free!

    • #7
  8. Xennady Member
    Xennady
    @

    Way back when I was paying my way through komunity kollej it didn’t seem cheap to me, but never mind.

    I suspect that taking  14 or 16 years to educate people enough to do any given job instead of 12 or even 8 as in times past is not necessarily optimum. Of course many jobs do require such lengthy training, but most don’t.

    Perhaps we should somehow focus a teensy bit of attention towards better spending the time people already sit in a classroom instead of figuring out how to get them to spend yet more time.

    I recall from way back page after page of non-credit courses in English and math intended to teach high school graduates enough of those subjects to allow them to function enough to take other classes. I’d like to know just why exactly we can’t expect that high school graduates- yes, graduates– are taught enough of the basics of English and math in the 12 freakin’ years of their lives they already spend in school, instead of having to do it yet again, at significant expense for someone.

    And having gone to school with many folks who were attending only because they needed a credential to allow them to keep doing the job they were already doing, I have to wonder if I’m the only person who has noticed that this is insane.

    Sure, it was occasionally hilarious when one of the students had to explain to the teacher how something actually worked, but I suspect everyone’s time and money could be better spent elsewhere.

    To bad there isn’t a political party that would advocate for reform. Perhaps a party that had no stake in the system as it exists now, since the people benefiting from that system today make no secret of how much they hate that party with a passion, and believe it and the people who vote for it are evil.

    Someday. Maybe someday…

    • #8
  9. user_216080 Thatcher
    user_216080
    @DougKimball

    Community colleges here in greater Phoenix are often selected in lieu of ASU because they are less expensive.  That is a fact.  Money is their only differentiator, but it is a powerful one when annual tuition alone at ASU is $ 15-16K a year IN STATE.  And make no mistake, it is the first thing the CC’s point out when recruiting at the local high schools where they have the added benefit of dual enrollment programs (another sham for another day.)

    • #9
  10. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    anonymous: There’s another phenomenon which kicks in when you make something like community college “free” (i.e., paid by somebody else). It becomes the path of least resistance for high school graduates who aren’t qualified for four year colleges and don’t want to enter the real world of employment.  When you’re 18 years old, two more years (or more: look at the completion rates) of non-demanding zero cost classroom attendance may seem like an eternity. This means that people who could start a promising and lucrative career by becoming apprentices in crafts such as plumbing, construction, electrical, HVAC, etc. simply waste two years of their lives with little prospect of acquiring skills which advance their lifetime earnings.

    1) Community college is already “free”.

    2) Community college does not have any performance requirements to get in (or most don’t anyway).

    3) So nothing is stopping people from doing what you’re saying, right now.

    4) Where are these “apprenticeships” people keep talking about? Studying for things like plumbing, HVAC and other technical type of work is precisely what one does at most community colleges. Most degrees at CC are focused on technical or medical professions.

    • #10
  11. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Nothing would change if community college was made “free”.

    The main reason being that it’s already “free”, at least for the “low income” student.

    The problem with CC isn’t that it doesn’t provide “value” to the student. The problem is that it only provides value to the student that actually completes it…and vast majority, never complete it.

    And that’s precisely because it is a no-requirement no-cost institution. Anyone can get in, and anyone does get it.

    • #11
  12. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    anonymous: Citation?  According to the College Board [PDF], it averages around US$2713 in public two-year institutions.

    That’s the sticker price. The “net price” taking into account tax breaks and grants is -$1,600 (negative 1,600) according to a study by the NY Fed. http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/current_issues/ci20-3.pdf

    anonymous: How is this relevant to what I wrote?  To the extent that requirements are lowered for entry into community colleges, they become even more a prolongation of free, career-worthless “education”.

    How can you have “lower requirements” if there are no requirements already?

    Career worthless? I thought “conservatives” were all harping about how people should focus more on “trade” education etc…which is what CC mostly does.

    CC’s problem is that vast majority of people don’t complete their degrees. For that that do, however, it isn’t worthless.

    anonymous: Indeed.  But if you provide a “free” alternative which does not involve actually working, as apprenticeships do, you will end up with fewer people working.

    What is this “apprenticeship” thing? Most apprenticeship programs are offered through a community college or other forms of trade school…and most are funded by state or local governments.

    Most people who train for a trade, do in fact do so at a “school”. CC mostly teach trades…technical trades and medical trades (or business trades like book keeping etc.)

    To the extent that it’s already free, for low-income people…it’s already free.

    anonymous: There is a huge difference between “studying” and an apprenticeship, which may not be appreciated in places where apprenticeships have been destroyed by sclerotic unions and labour laws.  Apprentices start working, under the supervision of a journeyman, around age 18, and in three or four years acquire the skills to become a journeyman.  Is it plausible that a community college can deliver the requisite experience in an “associate degree” program?

    It’s not only plausible, it’s the most common way of doing so.

    • #12
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