Let's give it the ol' college try

Yesterday, President Obama announced he would pursue making two years of community college "free" for "anyone who's willing to work for it."  (One could argue that a college education is already available to anyone who's willing to work for it, but federal interference has helped drive up costs so astronomically that it's getting incredibly hard to pursue higher education.)

Already, comments flooding the web have undertaken such detailed analysis as opining, "Republicans will oppose this because they hate education and want to keep people stupid."  We're not making this up - just visit the comment section on a wide variety of news sites today.  Take some tissues along in case you lose your battle against the urge to weep for the state of public discussion in this country.  (In addition to being a lazy form of argument, this attempts to sidetrack by already making this a partisan issue.  Are we then to assume that all Democrats must get in line because the President pitched this?  Can anyone not labeled by the two major parties even have an opinion any more?)

In the spirit of the subject matter, and as more details are revealed, let's give it "the ol' college try" (while taking a cue from Bastiat) and navigate the debate by taking a critical approach: "If we look beyond the effects we can clearly see, what potential unseen effects could await us down the road?"

Already, the White House has written:

If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.

As the Daily Mail (but more importantly, any functioning calculator) has already noted, just going off these numbers, we could be looking at a potential cost of $34 billion.  This has to come from somewhere and someone - or in this case, a lot of someones.  And we can't all be the Federal Reserve and create money out of thin air.

How will this affect state economies (and our national debt) and the value of the dollar down the road?  As for the biggest question mark of all - what kind of effect will this have on the price of education?  With colleges possibly seeing billions of dollars up for grabs, are they more or less likely to keep costs the same, raise them, or lower their prices, salaries, and tuition?

When it comes to requirements, the White House reports:

  • What students have to do: Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.
  • What community colleges have to do: Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.
  • What the federal government has to do: Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

To keep that federal and state money coming, will educators "teach to the test" at the college level so more students can keep their grades up?  What effect will community colleges adopting "promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes" have in costs and quality?  Will meeting these requirements take colleges away from their mission by burdening them with more paperwork and regulations?  Will a potential rise in tuition make it more or less difficult for struggling students to get into college?  Why is it (or isn't it) fair that a student with a 2.5 GPA gets two years tuition-free while a student with a 2.4 or 2.3 GPA gets a Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker-level jack squat?  Does the federal government even have the constitutional authority to offer this at all?

These are just a few of the questions that must be considered in this debate.  Contrary to what some may think, libertarians and constitutionalists believe education is vitally important.  Dr. Ron Paul has long championed the need for a sound education, and our sister organization, Young Americans for Liberty, as well as Campaign for Liberty Foundation work hard to improve the lives and careers of students all across the country.  Ensuring a quality education is a passion and the life's work of countless numbers in our movement.  But we must ask in pursuit of that goal: is education better or worse off the more government gets involved?

The President's proposal could have serious consequences on education and America's youth for decades down the road.  Let's give our current students and up-and-comers the respect they deserve by holding a reasonable debate that looks deeply into the matter at hand - and consider not only what we can see but what may not be so clear right now.

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