Tuition-free community college is going nowhere, but the Overton Window might take notice


I’ve been reading with idle interest President Obama’s proposal to cover the cost of tuition at more-than one thousand community colleges in America. For a not-gonna-go-anywhere-but-in-the-blogosphere policy proposal it’s not bad. The idea has merit, but its greatest value would rest on the implications for other progressive policy ideas, not necessarily through the administration’s stated goal of preparing American workers to remain competitive in a global labor market.

The general proposal is for Congress to pass legislation that would (mostly) federally fund the cost of tuition for those first two years at community colleges. States would cover the remaining funding and students would be required to attend at least half-time while maintaining a 2.5 GPA and progressing towards a degree. To my knowledge they haven’t offered an estimate for how much this would cost in total, but that the program would eventually assist up to 9 million students.

As I mentioned the White House frames this idea as a way to train future workers to be globally competitive, which is actually smarter on their part than any weak-sauce appeal to greater economic mobility or, even worse, a tool to fight poverty. College mostly benefits the already-well-off and this policy would be no different. Which is why, as some have noted, the idea is politically smart because it’s aimed towards benefiting the middle-class — a constituency that actually votes in meaningful numbers. These are families that would earn too much for their children to receive financial aid but much, much too little to afford the sticker price of most institutions.

The easy response from a left-perspective — at least from those that aren’t solely focused on free universal college as a panacea — is that covering tuition at community colleges does little to help the least among us. Very low-income students already have most of that price covered by Pell Grants, and while this specific proposal would still help them given that the aid is pre-Pell Grant, it does little to combat the effects of poverty because those are already well-entrenched before they enter high-school.

So why support this idea at all? Well, Mike Konczal makes at least one argument over at The Nation; that tuition-free community college would represent a chance to show the effectiveness of a “public option:”

Everyone—poor and middle class—would benefit from college cost control. Indeed this addresses one of the main conservatives complaints about student aid. If the supply of education is hard to move, then subsidizing education through aid will raise the price of education, as colleges capture some of that as a subsidy. Worse, it also increases costs for students who don’t receive the subsidy, resulting in price inflation.

Fair enough. But if that’s true, then it must also be true that lowering the price of tuition directly with a public option will reduce prices across the board. Suddenly state and private colleges will have to consider if they offer enough value to make their price over community colleges a reasonable value. This is what the economist JW Mason refers to as progressive supply-side economics, and it’s part of the reason public options are so valuable. There’s a reason the CBO keeps scoring the public option as a major cost saver in healthcare. It’s not just the lower price of the public option; it’s that a public option “would tend to increase the competitive pressure on [other] insurers” in the exchanges, leading them ”to lower their premiums, which would further reduce federal subsidies.” This won’t break the back of rising higher-education costs, but it will help.

I find this compelling, if for no other reason than a public option in education might make it easier to offer public options in other areas of our piecemeal welfare state.

Yet it’s Libby Nelson that may be making the stronger case for the idea’s epistemic implications, which isn’t “that it’s free — it’s that it’s universal.” To whit; with universality comes the political power to resist it’s removal:

This might not be the most effective way to spend federal money. But it’s politically smart. To see why, look at pre-K. Most of the research on pre-kindergarten effectiveness is about whether it helps poor children catch up to their peers from wealthier families. But in 1995, Georgia decided to use lottery winnings to make free pre-K available not just to the poor, but to any family who wanted to join.

Two decades later, Georgia’s universal pre-K program is very popular, championed by liberals and conservatives alike. And the reason it’s managed to stay relatively apolitical and noncontroversial is that it’s universal, Fawn Johnson wrote in National Journal last year. A program just for the poor “would be about class warfare,” one Georgia Republican told her.

It’s not that universality is at cross-purposes with Konzcal’s public option-proving thesis, but that the former goes beyond trying to protect itself with results. Medicaid has a swath of positive results to speak to its practical (setting aside moral) justification for existence but that hasn’t translated into the political power to protect it from privatization efforts, nor the ability to expand it to those in red states who need it the most. Contrast that with the veritable political poison of touching Medicare or Social Security and you’ll get the gist of this argument.

The political clout of universal tuition-free community college would also support the notion that a universal basic income would need to be actually universal — or at the very least a basic income guarantee going to enough folks to make it effectively universal (again, think of Social Security). So a BIG may not be the most effective program by writing checks to everyone making under a 120k a year, but if that’s the cost of buying-in the powerful then it’s well worth it.

To reiterate the obvious, though, this is ultimately cloud-surfing imagineering. The president’s proposal will go nowhere and we’ll be talking about the next bold progressive idea in the same terms. But perhaps there’s value nonetheless in these conversations despite their dead-on-arrival status. Shifting the Overton Window has to start somewhere, and throwing out increasingly left-field ideas as legitimate is one way to start moving it.


One response to “Tuition-free community college is going nowhere, but the Overton Window might take notice

  1. Pingback: Tuition-free community college, continued | Punditocracy·

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