ONWARD AND UPWARD

The Free Community College Plan is Obama’s G.I. Bill

The president’s plan to make community college free for everyone is the best news for the middle class in a long time.

01.24.15 11:45 AM ET

President Obama this month gave the best State of the Union address of his presidency but it was largely written in disappearing ink. Like the vast majority of presidential speeches, little of it lingers.

But one proposal in the speech could prove historic. While Obama’s $60 billion plan for two free years of community college is dead-on-arrival in the Republican Congress, it is very much alive in American politics, where progressives now have an aspirational, easy-to-understand issue to rally around. When it’s finally signed into law by President Hillary Clinton or another Democrat in the White House, we’ll look back on the idea as Barack Obama’s GI Bill, a powerful engine for restoring the American middle class.

“Free” is always a crowd-pleaser and the idea is already wildly popular. In Tennessee, an astonishing 90 percent of high school seniors are enrolling in the state version, designed under a Republican governor and now promoted as a prototype by a Democratic president. After Obama first unveiled his plan while aboard Air Force One on January 8, the video broke the record for most downloads from his website. Not bad, considering that the White House has released more than 2,000 such videos—including cute ones of the president’s dog.

The excitement isn’t hard to figure. Even at the depths of the Great Recession, unemployment was relatively low among college-educated adults. Young Americans understand that they need some kind of degree after high school to join or stay in the imperiled middle-class. Otherwise they’re road kill in the global economy.

Obama was no doubt influenced on this issue by his first White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who proposed the idea of two free years of college in a 2006 book. After being elected mayor of Chicago in 2011, Emanuel learned that area businesses would create more than 200,000 new jobs over the next decade but that most of Chicago’s 100,000 community college students weren’t qualified for them.

So Emanuel torched the existing community college system and replaced it with one connecting the colleges to 70 local business partners who help design curriculum. Each school specializes in an area—IT, business, health care, advanced manufacturing, hospitality, transportation and logistics. Now Chicago is on its way to doubling its community college graduation rate, though from a very low base.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson, a longtime critic of what he calls the “college-for-all crusade,” argues that most jobs still don’t require a college degree or certificate. But Samuelson fails to notice that most good jobs do. And according to a Georgetown University study, by 2020 two thirds of all jobs will require at least some post-secondary training, which few employers are willing to provide (PDF).

Obama’s comparison to high school a century ago is an apt one. An industrial economy needed graduates with basic skills, so the idea of free high school (rare in the 19th Century) took root. Now, an information economy requires workers with the critical thinking skills and specialized training that requires 14 years—not 12—of formal education.

With high schools largely out of the vocational education business, the burden for preparing the workforce of the future has fallen to community colleges and the other two-year training and apprentice programs that would also be free under the president’s plan. This is true even for occupations that have not traditionally required a degree. Auto mechanics need IT training to fix today’s smart cars. Health care technicians require specialized coursework if they have any hopes of advancing. Warehouse workers must be schooled in logistics to meet their just-in-time delivery schedules.

You would think Republicans might get this—and that they might notice that federal support for higher education hasn’t always been a partisan issue. The original GI Bill offered free tuition to servicemen returning from World War II. Passed unanimously under FDR in 1944, the bill was the brainchild of Harry Colmery, a former American Legion commander and former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Colmery and other backers were interested primarily in helping veterans, but they soon saw that the bill was doing much more. It was propelling the postwar economic boom and the dramatic expansion of the American middle class.

So Republicans voted to strengthen the GI Bill. In 1966, under LBJ, the law was expanded to include peacetime veterans. The vote was again unanimous. Ronald Reagan signed a further expansion in 1984 and George W. Bush another in 2008.

Republican presidents and lawmakers who backed these bills weren’t spendthrifts. And they believed, like today’s GOP, that education was largely a local issue. But they also knew from history what has made the country strong. They knew that it was their party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act launching land grant colleges (now state universities), which originally trained students for careers in agricultural, mining and other growing occupations of the era.

Free community college is on a continuum with the Morrill Act and the GI Bill, but with one big caveat: While many fine community colleges are under-appreciated gateways to success, others just aren’t good enough to be further subsidized.

Their standards are so low that the diplomas they grant are often worthless in the marketplace. They outsource their instruction to poorly-paid adjuncts and offer too few courses connected to the needs of local employers. Most unforgiveable, their average six-year graduation rates are almost always below 50 percent (the average is around 30 percent), which means that more than half of their students are going into debt with little to show for it.

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It’s not entirely the fault of the institutions. Hundreds of thousands of students graduate from high school academically unprepared for college, and those requiring (often deadly boring) remedial classes are much more likely to drop out. The personal and financial challenges confronting students who are frequently the first in their families to attend college are often overwhelming. And most community colleges, lacking affluent alumni and consistent support from state and local government, are strapped for cash.

But enough such schools are succeeding under tough conditions to put the rest on notice to pull up their socks. Any landmark bill—at the federal, state and local level—needs teeth: No money without dramatic improvements in curricula and graduation rates.

While details remain sketchy, the White House plan seems to get the point: “This proposal will require everyone to do their part: community colleges must strengthen their programs and increase the number of students who graduate, states must invest more in higher education and training, and students must take responsibility for their education, earn good grades, and stay on track to graduate.”

The biggest problem with the Obama plan is that it doesn’t call for blowing up the existing guidance/advisory system, which is a scandal. Many community colleges have a ratio of one guidance counselor for every 1,500 to 2,000 students (or more), a recipe for failure. By the time the college learns that a student is struggling, he or she has long since dropped out.

Sensible regulation should insist on much smaller advisor-student ratios, which would likely mean requiring faculty members, administrators, coaches and other employees to each take a certain number of advisees. That’s the practice in private colleges and a good early warning system for students at risk of dropping out.

Fixing this problem will require standing up to the powerful higher ed lobby, which offers lame excuses for why the guidance/advisory system can’t be overhauled. And the incentive structures must change. Right now, colleges have no financial reason to improve graduation rates. (Because big lecture prerequisites for freshmen are much less expensive for colleges than small upper-level seminars, they make more money on enrollment than completion.) Shaming the laggards by requiring that their graduation rates be posted would also help.

A model national bill would also insist that more credits be transferrable. Many colleges earn revenue by rejecting credits from distant schools so they can make students take the courses again. The problem is especially acute at for-profit schools, which need special supervision.

But these wrinkles can all be ironed out. The more basic arguments against the president’s idea don’t hold up under inspection. The first is cost: $60 billion over 10 years. That’s not chump change, but it isn’t as prohibitive as some of the post-State of the Union commentators suggested. It’s less than five percent of what we’ve spent in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is restoring the middle class and preparing this country to compete internationally really less important?

The second major argument is that free college is another entitlement—a dirty word nowadays. We’ll be locked into paying for two years of college forever, we’re told. The same argument could have been used against Social Security, the GI Bill and Medicare, all of which were enacted before the pejorative “entitlements” came into common usage. Entitlements become problematic when their provisions are set in stone and their costs spiral out of control, neither of which need be inevitable. To guard against the budgetary miscalculations that have plagued other landmark programs, we’ll need regulations that prevent huge tuition increases.

Some liberal critics say the Obama plan should be more directed at the poor. They’re already eligible for Pell grants (to a maximum of $5,750 a year) but could use the money for supplies and to compensate for wages they might have earned had they not been in school. This is the old means test vs. universality argument, and the latter has the edge here. Middle class students are strapped, too. And the political argument remains relevant: eliminating middle class students from eligibility for free community college reduces the chances of passage from slim to none—no matter who’s president.

It’s true that pushing the poor toward community colleges risks worsening the problem of “undermatching”—poor students who are bright enough for four year colleges but don’t go. This can be compensated for by more vigorous recruitment. Overall, free community college would allow both poor and middle class students not to work as many part-time hours while in school, which makes it easier for them to graduate.

Even as the deficit is cut in half, myopic Republicans are likely to conclude that investing in the middle class isn’t affordable. (Notice how they never say that about new tax breaks for the wealthy.) This means that state and local support for free community college is the best option for now. Obama seems to recognize that his main task will be to advocate, not enact. “I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” he said in his speech.

That’s a big idea worthy of this president, and worthy of our attention long after the 2015 State of the Union Address is a dim memory.