Not everyone has to go to college.

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Obama's College Plan Bows to Elites

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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President Obama has announced a plan to make community college "as free and universal as high school." A lot could be said about this plan, and most of it already has been--see Tyler Cowen for a comprehensive roundup with a bottom line I endorse: "Overall my take is that the significant gains are to be had at the family level and at the primary education level, and that the price of community college is not a major bottleneck under the status quo."

The major barriers to completing college do not include community-college tuition, which is low for everyone, and basically free for low-income families (you automatically qualify for a Pell Grant if your family income is less than $24,000 a year, and many others qualify above that line). Libby Nelson offers the wan defense that universal programs may enjoy greater support than those targeted at the poor, which would be more compelling if community college weren't already basically free for low-income families.  

Whether or not you think this program is a good idea depends on what you think the effects will be. Will it primarily:

  1. Offer a subsidy to middle-class kids who don't really need the money?
  2. Encourage middle-class families to transfer their kids to community college for the first two years of school, and thus help to moderate college costs?
  3. Encourage financially constrained students who might not have gone to college to enter the system en route to a degree?
  4. Encourage marginal students with a low chance of completing a career-enhancing degree to attend school, mostly wasting government money and their own time?

Obviously, effects #2 and #3 are more attractive as a policy goal than effects #1 and #4. Unfortunately, I'm pretty skeptical that they represent the most likely outcomes. Middle-class families already have the option of saving thousands upon thousands of dollars by enrolling their kids in community college for the first two years, keeping up their grade point average, and then transferring to a four-year school. The average tuition and fees at a community college are currently around $3,300 a year, according to the Washington Post. Is getting rid of that last few thousand dollars really what is keeping parents from taking advantage of this financial bargain?

In some cases, obviously. Demand curves do slope downward, and lowering the price of community college relative to a four-year college will undoubtedly cause at least a few people to switch. But how many? There are reasons other than cost to choose a four-year school, like getting your child out of the house, and the prestige of the bachelor of arts program from which they eventually graduate. I'm skeptical that this is going to send parents and kids stampeding away from four-year schools in the numbers needed to effect substantial change.

Moreover, as a professor of my acquantance pointed out on Facebook this morning, the entry-level "blackboard" classes for which community colleges substitute are relatively cheap to teach. So if this succeeded, you'd be shifting customers out of the cheaper classes that subsidize higher level seminars, labs, and professional programs like nursing. We'd save on the first two years of tuition, in other words, but the price of the second two years might well go up.

I'm equally skeptical about the ability to attract financially marginal students into the system, because as noted above, Pell Grants cover tuition for low-income students. If students can afford to use more of their Pell Grants to cover transportation and living expenses rather than tuition, this may help on the margin--but a Pell Grant is not really enough for anyone to live on, even if tuition is covered. So those students still face substantial barriers to college access, because their families can't subsidize their living expenses, not because tuition is too high.

Thus I suspect that this plan will mostly help subsidize people who could have afforded tuition on their own, while encouraging marginally attached students to stay enrolled. It's not the worst way to spend government money, but in a world of limited resources, it's probably not the way I'd choose to spend that money. Especially since community college completion rates, while hard to calculate, seem to be pretty unimpressive; five years after enrolling, only 25 percent of people had an associate or four-year degree. Another 11 percent had certificates, some of which may be economically valuable, but even if you add in those numbers, that's still a pretty dismal record.

Of course, community colleges are often dealing with the most challenging students. More than 50 percent of community-college enrollees require remedial work, and of those, more than 40 percent never even complete their remedial courses. Add in family and financial challenges, and it's not surprising that dropout rates are so high. But this raises a question that most people don't ask. If you graduated high school without mastering basic math and reading, and can't complete the remedial courses offered by your community college, what are the odds that you are going to earn a valuable degree? Why are we so obsessed with pushing that group further into the higher education system, rather than asking if we aren't putting too much emphasis on getting a degree?

Asking that question usually raises accusations of elitism, of dividing society into the worthy few and the many Morlocks who aren't good enough for college. I would argue instead that what's elitist is our current fixation on college.  It starts from the supposition that being good at school is some sort of great personal virtue, so that any suggestion that many people aren't good at school must mean that those people are not equal and valuable members of society. And that supposition is triple-distilled balderdash.

My grandparents had perhaps ten adult books in their house, most of which were either Bibles or biographies of presidents.  I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of in not regarding reading as great recreation. Bookishness has added greatly to society. So has the ability to run a business well, which my grandfather did for many years, employing dozens, maybe hundreds, of people over his lifetime. So has community service, which both my parents did with great distinction, and being kind and decent and generous. I don't need to hide the fact that neither of my grandparents much cared for books or school, because I don't think that made them some sort of lesser class of person. Pretending that everyone has the potential to be like the tiny class of educated people who run policy in this country is not egalitarianism; it is the secret snobbery of a mandarin class who really do think that being good at school made them more worthy and important than everyone else.

Don't get me wrong: There are some people who would enjoy and benefit from school, who have trouble getting and staying there because of their family backgrounds. I'm all for a program that helps identify those people, and gives them the supports they need to make it all the way. But blanket tuition subsidies for community colleges that offer minimal student support are not that program; they are simultaneously too much and too little. Indiscriminately subsidizing anyone who is enrolled in a community-college class offers inadequate support for academically gifted students who are having trouble navigating the system. Meanwhile, it acts as if anyone sitting in a classroom--any classroom, with any teacher, lecturing about any subject--is engaging in a valuable activity deserving of thousands of dollars worth of annual subsidy.

Higher education is becoming the ginseng of the policy world: a sort of all-purpose snake oil for solving any problem you'd care to name, as long as we consume enough of it. Education is a very good thing, but it is not the only good thing. An indiscriminate focus on pushing more people into the system is no cure for society's ills--and indeed, often functions as a substitute for helping the people who are struggling in the current system.

What if people in the policy elite stopped assuming that the ideal was to make everyone more like them, and started thinking about making society more hospitable to those who aren't? My grandfather graduated into a world where a man with a high-school diploma could reasonably hope to own his own business, or become someone else's highly valued employee, a successful pillar of a supportive community. His grandchildren graduated into a world where a college diploma was almost the bare necessity to get any kind of a decent job. Why aren't we at least asking ourselves if there's something we can do to create more opportunity for people without diplomas, instead of asking how many more years we can keep everyone in school? Why do all of our proposed solutions essentially ratify the structure that excludes so many people, instead of questioning it?

I have some ideas about what those policies might look like: broad deregulation, especially at the state and local level, to ease things for business creators and make it easier to get various sorts of jobs that are currently protected by licensing requirements; more co-op and apprenticeship programs; wage subsidies for entry-level workers, and perhaps a broad system of government internships that could help people gain experience outside of the classroom. I'm sure that there are many more I haven't named. But we won't find them as long as the only politically interesting solution is ever more years in school. 

People who drop out of community college really are every bit as valuable to the world as those who emerge summa cum laude from Harvard. The way we acknowledge that is to create a society that values them as workers and citizens, not to declare that we'll be more than happy to help them . . . just as soon as they get cracking on that diploma.

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