The Problem With Federalizing Community College

Boston College students are acutely aware of the extreme costs of a college education. Although BC’s nearly $60,000 tuition is certainly in the upper echelon of American university costs, the price of an education in the United States is exceedingly expensive.

Students in the lowest socioeconomic tiers often turn to community college as a fiscally viable way to ultimately enter into the workforce. In his State of the Union address, President of the United States Barack Obama lauded community colleges as “the essential pathways to the middle class.” He described them as a way to introduce his proposition of making community colleges tuition-free for qualified students across the nation. On its surface, this proposition seems sound and certainly attractive to those struggling to pay for access to higher education, but unfortunately, the plan is plagued with a host of problems.

Firstly, it is important to understand that community colleges themselves are somewhat in a state of disrepair. While they provide a good option for people working full-time or raising children, the quality of colleges varies dramatically across the nation. Many courses are out of date, and those suited for vocational training are often ill-suited for local job markets. Moreover, statistics show that only 20 percent of full-time community college students earn an associate’s degree in three years (it should only take two).

My hesitation for labeling community colleges as “essential pathways to the middle class” for socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans also rests on the fact that their utility is primarily a means for transferring to four-year universities once students have completed their associate degree requirements. Although a student is alleviated of the financial burden of paying for community college under the proposed plan, he is by no means exempt from the markedly greater cost that a four-year university demands, even if he receives significant financial aid support.

As far as educational costs go in comparison to the benefit that they ultimately confer on their graduates, community colleges are not very expensive—the average tuition is about $3,300 per year. This price is absolutely manageable, but the law proposal could have perverse effects on community college students. Federalizing the national community college educational system may force states to cut direct funding to colleges and put all capital into financial aid for students, as state treasuries accumulate three federal dollars for every dollar they themselves spend on educational pursuits. As a result, community college fees will likely see a dramatic rise so states can absorb the extra federal cash. Precedent for this occurring lies in the fact that university tuition across the nation has risen since the federal government has made student loans cheaper.

Federalizing education—an area that should be managed exclusively by the states—is a problem in and of itself. Lamar Alexander, a secretary of education and now Republican senator, agrees with an expansion of the Tennessee Compromise (a state funding program backed by Democrats and Republicans on which the federal community college proposition is based), but insists that programs such as these should be left largely to the states as a way to minimize federal control over education, a reach characteristic to the Obama administration.

Moreover, the proposition is not economically feasible. With the federal deficit climbing the trillions as we speak, it begs the question of how a program like this can possibly be funded on good faith. Granted, the argument can be made that the cost to taxpayers (six billion per year, roughly four percent of the federal budget) is nothing too substantial. However, it is directly antithetical to the philosophy underlying the community college proposition: a way to help those in lower socioeconomic tiers and to bolster the middle class. President Obama is also faced with the challenge of convincing a Republican-dominated Congress, which is unlikely to allow another federal spending spree, of his proposal’s viability.

President Obama’s rhetoric of championing the economically disadvantaged and bolstering the middle class begins to elicit laughter when considering the aggregate effect of his proposals. On one hand, he proposes the federal community college program, but people seem to forget his other proposal to tax the 529 Savings Account (an educational savings plan designed to help families set aside funds for future college costs). The irony here is unavoidable. In fact, the 529 Savings Tax is part of a package of tax hikes proposed to justify spending for the community college proposition. President Obama has completely succumbed to his own dialectic at this point, rendering his rhetoric empty.

It is becoming increasingly more apparent that the community college proposition is mostly politically motivated—as many of President Obama’s initiatives have been in his final term. Many critics argue that this is yet another populist play by Obama before he leaves office. Despite the accountability escapism represented by the constant usage of the phrase, “I’m not running for anything,” it is clear that he is laying the groundwork for the Democratic party in 2016, when the mantra that Republicans show no compassion for the lower classes can be slung yet again across party lines.

It seems that the entire community college proposal is unnecessary. Community college is affordable and most already receive financial aid. The current Pell Grant/Loan (standard financial aid packages) and private scholarship system are doing a good job. Ultimately, the Obama proposition is yet another big government spending scheme that ends up hurting more people than it helps, packaged under the facade of socioeconomic empowerment—a story that seems to never end with President Obama.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

1 Comment

  1. 3,300 may seem “absolutely manageable”to someone who has either paid Boston College’s tuition or received enough scholarship and loans to attend this university, but that fee is not manageable to everyone. The Massachusetts minimum wage, as of January 1st, 2015, is 9 dollars per hour. If a person works forty hours a week, he or she will make 18,720 dollars a year. So if you subtract the 3,300 for tuition, that leaves 15,420 dollars for a year’s worth of expenses. That includes food, rent, clothing–and maybe a few luxuries if the person is lucky. And if that person is a single parent, then that 15,420 have to be stretched even further. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people working minimum wage jobs are full-time adults as opposed to teenagers looking for spending money. They are probably working minimum wage jobs because they do not have a college education. In reference to such few people gaining associate’s degrees, tuition might be a fact as well as their full-time employment taking precedent. When it comes down to it, what is more important, food or education? According to the Washington Post, college graduates live longer and are happier (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/07/31/want-to-live-longer-send-your-kids-to-college/). And if the government is instituted for the people, doesn’t it have the obligation to give them every opportunity to succeed? As a final comment, I question the rise of fees for community colleges. If tuition is free, the students could use the saved money to pay the extra fees as I doubt they would exceed the cost of the original tuition. It sounds very similar to the argument that raising the minimum wage: those that need welfare will not be able to get it because they no longer qualify. But if they are getting paid more, they won’t need it because they are making enough to survive. As a student at Boston College, I refuse to restrict anyone else from enjoying the same right to education that I possess. An educated future is a safer, happier, and healthier future.

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