Dabbling in higher education — Obama’s latest “free stuff”

State of the Union addresses are nearly unwatchable even when one likes the president giving it. Given my view of President Obama, I don’t intend to watch tonight’s spectacle.

We know in advance that Obama will use the speech to tout his proposal that two years of community college be made available for free to all “responsible” students, with funding to come primarily from federal taxpayers. This is another one of Obama’s “measured” income redistribution plans.

It’s also a terrible idea. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute explains why. First, community college completion rates are atrocious. According to the federal Digest of Education Statistics, only 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their programs within 150 percent of the time they are supposed to take (two years for a two-year degree and 15 months in the case of a certification program).

By contrast, the for-profit sector, heavily demonized by the Obama administration, has an almost 63 percent completion rate at two-year institutions. That rate has been steadily increasing.

The community college completion rate has been steadily declining and will, of course, drop even more if students don’t have to pay to attend. Students with no money invested in their education will have less incentive to stick with it.

Obama, then, wouldn’t be providing a free community college education. By and large, he’d be providing free dabbling in education. Paid for by taxpayers.

Second, according to McCluskey, the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require post-secondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects as growing the most by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of post-secondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. The majority of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.

In short, Obama wants taxpayer money to subsidize a failing system that, even when it succeeds in producing graduates, tends to provide education that isn’t much needed going forward.

Obama is probably aware of the lack of success and growing irrelevance of community colleges. Even if he isn’t, I doubt that he is proposing free community college education because he thinks it’s a good idea. The proposal feels like a political ploy to (1) make it seem as if Obama isn’t out of ideas and (2) induce Republicans to oppose “free stuff.”

The truth is that Republicans are full of innovative ideas about how to improve secondary education in the U.S. As the conservative organization Latinos Ready to Vote says:

[Conservative reform] includes Sen. Mike Lee’s work to break down antiquated regulatory barriers to innovative programs—such as the coding academies that have emerged in a number of cities in the United States—that could likely offer students a higher-quality education at potentially a lower price.

It includes Sen. Marco Rubio’s work to streamline the federal-loan system, expand private financing options for students, and provide students and parents with better information about the outcomes of programs they’re considering.

Lastly, Rep. Paul Ryan’s call for schools to face a financial consequence when their students default on their loans—giving them “skin in the game”—would bring a much-needed dose of market discipline to a system that sorely lacks it.

None of these thoughtful ideas has the same immediate mass appeal as “free stuff.” But conservatives can make the case that the types of reforms cited above and other market-based concepts are preferable to a centrally managed “public option” built on an education system that the federal government’s own statistics show is failing.

Conservatives should begin making that case.

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