Obama college plan lacks substance, funds

The Detroit News

You've got to hand it to President Barack Obama. He knows how to work a crowd. And he's especially adept at getting young people excited. Leading up to his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama recently promoted a free community college plan with students in Tennessee. It's no surprise they met his proposal with cheers.

But being president isn't a popularity contest. Rather than showing true leadership, Obama is spending his time staging showdowns with Republicans. It's easy to promise freebies to an eager audience than to take responsibility for funding those promises. Obama has gone on similar campaigns in support of raising the minimum wage and expanding free preschool.

"Community college should be free for those willing to work for it," the president said Jan. 9 at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville.

The White House estimates 9 million students could participate in the program, saving them an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. The federal government would pick up 75 percent of the $60 billion cost, with states covering the rest — a provision that adds an unfunded mandate to already strapped state budgets. The "America's College Promise" is modeled after the Tennessee Promise — signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year to offer free community college tuition for two years.

But there's no such thing as a free program. Free education doesn't exist. Someone has to pay for it. Tennessee funds its program with lottery proceeds. The president will presumably reveal his funding plan either in his State of the Union address this week, or when he releases his budget in a few weeks.

And, again, presumably, he'll propose paying for it by raising taxes on a select group. That's an idea he knows won't fly through a Republican congress. So he can propose a populist entitlement program without a viable funding plan and then blame Congress for shooting it down.

There are a multitude of areas where the federal government could trim costs to pay for such a program. Ineffective job training programs could be targeted — the government runs 47 programs administered by nine federal agencies at a cost of roughly $18 billion. Similarly, the government could cut back on the billions it spends annually on student loans and grants — with free community college, some of the loan spending is redundant. And if Obama is confident his community college plan will translate into more jobs and financial independence, he should call for curtailed welfare spending.

Lindsey Burke, an education policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, has several concerns with the free tuition plan. She argues that low-income students already have access to federal Pell grants, which cover full tuition at community colleges in most states. This means students who could afford to pay their expenses will benefit the most.

Burke also makes the case that a third of high school graduates aren't ready for college-level work and have to take remedial courses when they enter college. She's concerned that two free years of community college would ultimately turn high school into a six-year endeavor.

Creating a more skilled workforce is a worthy goal. It's something Gov. Rick Snyder has also pushed in Michigan. And community colleges are perfect places for much of this training. But that doesn't mean Obama's plan is necessary.

Rather, existing community college programs overseen by states seem to be doing a good job of providing a basic level of education and skill training. Michigan, for example, has a program that lets community colleges create specialized training courses through flexible financing to support companies that are expanding job opportunities.

The better approach is to give these community colleges the support they need to enrich their offerings and keep tuition reasonable.