Reihan Salam writes,
Texas A&M economist Jonathan Meer kindly pointed me to their recent work on net prices — that is, net tuition and fees after grant aid — for students attending public institutions, including community colleges. It turns out that in 2011–12, “net tuition and fees at public two–year colleges ranged from $0 for students in the lower half of the income distribution to $2,051 for the highest-income group.” That is, net tuition and fees were $0 for students from households earning $60,000 or less while it was $2,051 for students from households earning over $106,000. While I don’t doubt that many households in the $106,000-plus range will welcome not having to pay for their children’s community college education, I’m hard-pressed to see why this initiative will have a “huge” impact, given that we’re presumably most concerned about improving community college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
1. Just based on my gut feeling, I think that the vast majority of students attending community college do not have favorable outcomes. (But note this study,pointed to by Tyler Cowen.
Attending a community college increased the probability of earning a bachelors degree within eight years of high school graduation by 23 percentage points for students who would not have attended any college in the absence of reduced tuition.
My guess is that it does not replicate.)
I am not even sure that students in the lower tier of four-year colleges have favorable outcomes. Instead, the true cost, including what the students pay out of pocket plus subsidies plus opportunity cost, exceeds the benefit for many who attend college. In contrast, President Obama seems to endorse the fairy-dust model of college, where you can sprinkle it on anyone to produce affluence.
He said a high school diploma is no longer enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and that a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”
He describes the U.S. as a place where college is limited to “a privileged few.” I think a more realistic assessment would conclude that the U.S. errs on the side of sending too many young people to college, not too few.
2. At community colleges, most of the favorable outcomes are middle-class students who, if community college were not available, would find some other path to success. (Possibly related: Philip Greenspun writes,
Amanda Pallais of Harvard presented “Leveling Up: Early Results from a Randomized Evaluation of Post-Secondary Aid”, a paper on the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation scholarship for lower income Nebraskans who have a high-school GPA of at least 2.5 and maintain a college GPA of at least 2.0. It turns out that people who are going to attend college and graduate will do so even without this grant and people who were marginally attached to academic will become only slightly more attached. The cost of keeping one student in college for an additional semester is $40,000 of foundation funds.
Pointer from Tyler Cowen.
3. For the students that you want community college to help, I think that the case for community college is sort of like the case for last-ditch cancer therapy. Every once in a while it works, and you want to give people hope. But looking at the overall costs and benefits involved, the money is not well spent.
4. Rather than expand community colleges, I suspect the best approach would be to contract them by making them more selective. Try to find the students who are most likely to benefit, and concentrate on those. Robert Lerman, who is far from an anti-opportunity meanie, suggests apprenticeships.
5. If I were President Obama, of course, I would champion universal “free” community college. Worst case, my proposal becomes law. A lot of money gets wasted, but it’s not my money. Best case, the Republicans vote it down and I call them anti-opportunity meanies.