MSU Dean: Obama’s free college plan is not best path to a degree

In a Bridge Magazine column this week, Chuck Wilbur voiced support for President Obama’s proposal to offer two years of community college free to all students across the country. Wilbur is right that expanding access to higher education is critical to Michigan’s continuing economic recovery from the worst recession in generations. But his support of the president’s plan is misguided, and will not result in the best use of the state’s limited resources.

In responding to Wilbur’s column, I first feel obligated to correct his misreading of history. He stated, “For the first time in our history, a sitting president has recognized we need to make a two year post-secondary degree as universally available as a high school diploma.” This is not true; 18 years ago President Bill Clinton, while campaigning for a second term, promoted exactly the same notion, stating that the country needed to, “make 14 years of education – at least two years of college – the standard for all Americans.”

Clinton chose to go about this differently than Obama, however. Rather than giving grants to students, as the current president has chosen, Clinton opted to make use of the tax code through a series of tax credits and deductions for students and parents. Another difference is the Clinton tax credits could be used for the first two years of any college or university, not only community colleges.

The Clinton program did not succeed in creating a universal 14 years of schooling, and it is unlikely that Obama’s plan would accomplish this either. It is difficult to understand exactly how the program will work, because the White House has yet to release many details. But from what has been divulged, it is already clear that there are major problems with what the president has proposed.

One of the things we do know is that the program is potentially very expensive. While the White House estimates the cost at $60 billion over 10 years, an estimate by David Leonhardt of The New York Times puts the annual cost at $15 billion. The president’s proposal also requires states to kick in 25 percent of the cost for each student. It is unclear whether the states – most of which cut spending on higher education during the recession – will take on this commitment.

Here in Michigan, a conservative estimate would put the state’s share of the cost to offer two years of community college for free at approximately $170 million. This is 70 percent greater than the state is currently spending on financial aid for all college students.

Whatever it costs, the president will have a hard time selling a fiscally conservative Congress on the need for new spending on the government’s student aid programs. And if this is not going to be a new stream of funding, it leads one to question where the money will come from. While the president has proposed a series of increased taxes on higher-income Americans and banks, it is unlikely he will get Congress to go along with this funding strategy.

Will it come from existing funding for Pell Grants, the primary federal grant program for low- and moderate-income students? Or from the Department of Education’s Federal Direct Loan Program? These are important questions to determine whether the president’s proposal is a wiser use of the money than other options, and the same questions need to be asked about Michigan’s proposed participation in the program.

Another problem is that the offer would be open to anyone, without considering the financial circumstances of the student or family. I understand the appeal of offering a universal benefit like this – it helps build political support for the program. There are also benefits to publicizing the idea of offering the first two years of community college for free to all students. This can help lessen the “sticker shock” that affects many low-income students who want to go to college, but who think it is too expensive and do not have good information about financial aid.

However, offering this benefit to all students is a largely inefficient use of the money if the president’s ultimate goal is to increase college access and degree attainment. Providing public subsidy to some students who would enroll in a community college even without the government’s assistance will unlikely have much impact on their college-going behavior. The money would be more effectively spent targeting students who truly have financial need, and whose behavior can be influenced through the subsidy.

The country may, in fact, be better off if the $3,800 grant could be used for students attending four-year universities, as well as community colleges. There is definitive research showing that students who earn bachelor’s degrees receive much larger economic returns, on average, than do those earning associate degrees. And while some community colleges do a good job of preparing students for transfer to four-year institutions, the research also shows that most students who start their post-secondary career at a community college will never earn a bachelor’s degree.

While the president’s intentions are good, there are still many unknown pieces of his proposal that need to be fleshed out. Until they are determined and the concerns raised here are addressed, President Obama’s good intentions may be foiled by a poorly-designed program, and the State of Michigan would be wise to hesitate before committing to participate.

Donald Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University.The views expressed here are his own, and do not represent those of Michigan State.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:08am
Social Security is easy to administer because it goes to everyone who reaches the appropriate age, but can be taxed if other earnings are high enough. Making payments dependent on other income only adds to the complexity. Same with this proposal. The idea is to keep it simple. If an immense bureaucracy needs to be put into place to insure that the money goes to the 'right people', it only adds to the cost. Anyhow, if this is intended for Junior Colleges, the children of the 'affluent' are not going to pass up Brown, Princeton or Harvard for the local community college.
Darryle Buchanan
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:18am
Not everyone is going to pursue a bachelor's degree and many jobs do not require one. The community colleges will prepare more people for careers in fields that require more technicals skills. If after being in the workforce the individual chooses to pursue a four year degree, that option will be available to them. Many students have circumstances that won't allow them to pursue their education in the traditional pattern of high school then college and makes their career choices match their situation. Education is a lifelong pursuit and you should recognize and respect that professor.
Lola Johnson
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:37am
Dean Heller's comment that most students who attend junior colleges never achieve a bachelor's degree is exactly the point. Most of them will never NEED a bachelor's degree. How many promising young people drop out of universities when the costs become prohibitive? We all know that universities are adept at manipulating required classes, forcing students to put in an extra semester or two. If the dean is concerned about losing some of his students, perhaps he should take a hard look at some of the difficulties placed before students. "Financial aid" never comes close to covering costs for really needy students, or even those in lower-middle income families and private student loans are extremely costly. Get real, Dean.
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:42am
The writer assumes that the future will be an automatic extension of the past, i.e. because a majority of students who began their post secondary education at a community college do not achieve a four year degree that this will always be true. I submit that may or not be true in the future and there are a number of variables. Further, as an earlier comment stated, not all trajectories are for a bachelors degree. Many individuals could dramatically increase their lifetime earning potential with even a one-year certificate course or an associate degree. Our three children took three different approaches; 1) an expensive small liberal arts college; 2) a good state school and 3) an associate degree at the local community college followed by three years at U of M to achieve a 5 year terminal professional degree. If we had it to do all over again, we would send all three to the local community college for the first two years.......and not because of the lower cost. There are many benefits of a transition from high school to a university via a community college
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:44am
There are simply too many unknowns, particularly in terms of funding, to evaluate Obama's "proposal" including looking at likely unintended consequences. It's reasonable to assume that both federal granting and state funding for post-secondary education as we now know it would dramatically decline. The hardest hit would be those with highest financial need. With their path to universities cut-off or severely limited this could easily result in a greater degree of segregation based on socioeconomic status at the university level than what currently exists. University access for the haves, community college access for all, including the have nots. Is that what we wish as an educational model?
Conan Smith
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:53am
Dr. Heller, thanks for a thoughtful critique of the political challenges facing the community college proposal. It will certainly be expensive, and it will certainly face stiff opposition in Congress. I think the greater point of all of the preK-14 proposals, however, is that the nature of a "basic" education has changed. On the back end, those two years of additional training are pretty critical for success these days. As such, they should be part of the the formal investment we make in a free public education. For everyone. With the demands of our modern economy, funding community college should be no more "needs-based" than third grade. It will be tough to prioritize education, but we should do it. I might prioritize pre-K over college, but frankly, we should do both. The savings that accrue to government in reduced social service spending are tremendous. The exponential benefit to our economy is probably immeasurable. If we're interested in a just and prosperous society, more than corrections, more than roads, more than economic development tax incentives, our emphasis should be on spending to expand our educational system.
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 11:01am
Additional money to community college students would be great if targeted to those who need it. Obamas plan would likely result in a new bureaucracy with hundreds of new federal employees. Worse yet the money would likely end up with hundreds of new rules and regulation. To get this small amount of new money these new rules will bring federal control to all of the community college budget. This would essentially destroy community colleges as we know them . The solution is simple. Add these new monies to the Pell Grant law which already has a formula which assures that the money goes to the most needy students, and would require no new federal employees. Rather than a new law this can be done by adding about a dozen new words in the Pell Grant law to wit: the maximum amount of a Pell Grant shall be $5800 per year, EXCEPT FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE STUDENTS WHERE THE MAXIMUM GRANT SHALL BE $8600 PER YEAR. (capitalized words is new language). After 50 years in the community college business, I have found that the Pell Grants are the most universally accepted and effective student aid program out there. Because of this, such an approach might have a chance of passing in the congress.
Sat, 01/31/2015 - 12:54pm
Let's hope the debate on this, assuming we can have a meaningful debate in the current congress, can lead to your reasonable solution for implementation. It seems to make a lot of sense to me. There is still the question of how it will be resourced.
Dedra Downs
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 11:07am
I grew up in Highland Park when our community college was free or almost free for Highland Park residents. Those who needed it took great advantage of it, those who did not need it did not use it. I went to U of M because I could get in and my parents could pay. I would not have passed up my UofM education to go to the community college. However, many of my friends took that route, went to Highland Park JC and then onto Wayne State and then onto successful careers. The lives they have today would not have been afforded to them without our free community college. Nothing eliminates poverty better than real access to a good education.
Kevin Gregory
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 11:41am
This proposal makes no sense. Community College is not cost prohibitive. Those who cannot afford it already have it payed for via financial aid. So why would we transfer the expense (for people who can afford the cost) to the taxpayers.
Fri, 02/12/2016 - 4:51pm
You are absolutely correct. I couldn't even get the Clinton tax credit because my Pell Grant paid for my Associates lol. I am now on my way to obtaining my Bachelors and work a pretty good job doing it. One with an auto promotion upon getting my bachelors. I used to think they should make community college free without all the hassle about parents tax information and what not. I still think FAFSA is too tedious. Yet it definitely does it's job. Look state colleges used to be free and are actually affordable for instate college (if you live with your parents or a roommate) so maybe making it more known in high-schools will lower debt going forward and keep college more realistic. Which is attainable with our current system. I just honest to God wish the ppwk part wasn't so difficult.
Charles Richards
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:41pm
Dean Heller says, "Wilbur is right that expanding access to higher education is critical to Michigan’s continuing economic recovery from the worst recession in generations." That is not precisely correct. What we need is better educated, better rained citizens. There is no guarantee that merely expanding access to higher education will lead to that. What percentage of those students given easier access to community college will make productive use of the opportunity? Shouldn't work ethic and self-discipline as evidenced by success in high school be a prerequisite for a subsidy?
Professor Marjo...
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 3:33pm
Years ago California offered free community college educations to residents. It was later discontinued. As one of our largest states, it would behoove President Obama to look at the California experiment to see why it ceased to function. My guess is that it came down to funding.
Bruce McFee
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 8:48pm
I'm in favor of continuing education for all people. Education should not stop after high school or community college. The world is changing so rapidly whether it's technology or your health care. It's needed in the work force and just to be connected to society. It's not just the 20+ year olds, even senior citizens should be engaged with learning. Obviously such an endeavor has affordability issues. Thus we need to be creative with both online learning and community class room efforts. But to believe education matters only through community college is just silly.
Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:46am
Professor Nanian mentioned that California had free junior college admission. I lived there at the time and saw Ronald Reagan discontinue it because he did not want to spend state money on it. I knew that we had a bad Governor, but to see him elected as President was to see him use his selfish attitude to affect all Americans. Bruce Rogers Iowa
other Duane
Fri, 01/30/2015 - 8:26am
It sounds so simple to give free tuition to all who want it, but it really is an ‘iceberg’ (10% of what they say and 90% of what they don’t say). What will be the cost; there is the tuition as Dean Heller mentioned, there will also have to be the millions and millions for more classrooms so there will be seats available for all the new students, there will have to be added instructors, the added administrative staff, the added facilities staff, the increased administrative loads for the presidents etc. with appropriate increased compensation, the added infra-structure, the added parking, the need for some housing, the expanded libraries, more electronic access, and more and more and more spending. Don’t be diluted that the cost the President claimed and Dean Heller talks about is the real amount that Michigan taxpayers will pay for. And not even the Dean is willing to talk about the likelihood of significant increase in wages earned by those who are admitted under this gift to those to everyone who wants it. The other secret that the proponents aren’t willing to talk about is the purported students this will draw in. How many of them are really interested, how many have applied and then not attended because of tuition costs? How many have not been effectively prepared to study on their own so they can actually learn at the community college level? What no one talks about is the learning in college is about desire and persistence and how many have that, how many have shown that, how many will make the sacrifices to learn? The issue that proponents and opponents, with alternative ways to spend that money, will not talk about is accountability. Not the President of the United States, not the community college presidents, not the four year colleges (except maybe a private school here and there) will say anything about expected impact and measuring to see if it happens. They want to spend the money based on ‘good intentions’ not real results. They will avoid at all cost (even not spending the money) verifying results. Without such accountability we will simply extend pre-K-12 two more years, pre-K-14, with no change in the educational levels, the marketable knowledge and skills, and student employment.
Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:34pm
This proposal will help the middle class the most and it's high time to offer up higher education to Americans as a public good.
Doug Curry
Sat, 01/31/2015 - 7:58pm
Sounds like a person trying to protect the turf of the 4 year universities. Most Americans do not need to get a four degree but all Americans need pro-high school education in order to gain skills that add value to themselves and society. 14 years of education is a must if we are to succeed as a nation. What a wonderful investment in America's future and the future of the middle class.
Sun, 02/01/2015 - 8:14am
Worthy goal, but the President's proposal for "free" community college is estimated to cost $60 billion or more?! The federal Highway Trust fund is broke and in just two or three months the Social Security Disability Trust Fund will run out of money. Unless you think the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny will pay for more free stuff from the federal government, we need to have a serious national discussion about federal entitlement reform.
J. A. Reyes
Mon, 02/02/2015 - 3:00pm
A more educated electorate would hopefully make better choices. Why would anyone be against that?
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 3:27am
I asked myself about the timeline of taxpayer-funded public education. Condensing several Wikipedia articles, the big names are Horace Mann and John Dewey. In the late 19th century as folks moved off the farm due to industrialization, Mann convinced people to fund elementary schools. By 1910, 72% of children attended school, and by 1918, attendance through elementary school was mandatory. Public high schools grew rapidly in the period between 1890 and 1930, and John Dewey broadened the curriculum from Latin and Greek college prep to encompass technical training such as woodworking, typing, auto mechanics, and home economics. By 1940, the high school graduation rate was 50%, and a high school diploma implied that the graduate was ready to go on to college, get a job, join the military, or get married. Frequently, job prospects for the high school grad included union scale and a new car within a couple years. It has been nearly a century since society decided to pay for a high school education because back then, a high school diploma was the gateway to a successful and fulfilling lifetime. It didn't hurt that employers wanted H.S. grads too. Today, a high school diploma is not enough. Some Horace Mann or John Dewey needs to convince America that, just like a hundred years ago, we need to expand the funded education coverage to include two years of community college, not, however, the four-year institutions. Community colleges are like grades 13 and 14, and they're much less expensive than the four-year schools. There's much more to write about this idea, but what I've written is a start.
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 4:45pm
James, I have to disagree with you that funding is the sole problem with the learning achievements of the students in school today. It is the student interest in learning that is a significant barrier to learning, John Dewey said, “…teaching and learning are correlative or corresponding processes, as much so as selling and buying. One might as well say he has sold when no one has bought, as to say that he has taught when no one has learned. And in the educational transaction, the initiative lies with the learner even more than in commerce t lies with the buyer.” Before spending more money we should better understand the students who are achieving learning success to better know how and why they succeed. We should be asking the teacher which students succeed and ask why and how they succeed. Simply spending more of other people’s money without focusing on what is important or on verifying the effectiveness of its spending is simply perpetuating what we are currently receiving in results. We should be trying to learn the root causes that prevent learning before we spend money on more of the same educational system.
Brenda Ammon
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 11:46am
Currently Michigan ranks 21st in college and career readiness and we are 8th highest in the nation in debt per college graduate. If as Dean Heller claims, Wilbur is right that expanding access to higher education is critical to Michigan’s continuing economic recovery, what is his solution specifically for Michigan? How, as a state, can we take ownership over better positioning our high school students for measurable improved outcomes in College, with greater affordability? As a state, Michigan now offers varied dual enrollment and early college experiences mostly aimed at underprivileged students, but that is not enough. How do we revitalize our Higher Education Marketplace without a government solution being forced on us and help more students overall, enroll in college, stay enrolled, stay enrolled in more difficult programs and improve their rate of college completion? As a solution, locally, Holt Public Schools now offers concurrent enrollment on their North Campus to high school seniors, an opportunity to earn college credit for classes while fulfilling their high school requirements. Four Lansing Community college courses are initially being offered; Writing 121, Math 121, Psychology 200 and Sociology 120. These are free college courses, paid for by the School District and with a grade of a 2.0 or higher will appear on a college transcript as transferable college credit. A comprehensive college in high school program could serve a large number of students in Michigan and increase college access and affordability. All across the country this advantage is being afforded to high school students. Transferable college credits are offered in their own high schools, taught by high school teachers who have adjunct instructor appointments. Our Higher Education Marketplace in Michigan has the opportunity to build this capability too. College in high school! Investigate the University of Minnesota website, it details the advantages of offering college courses on high school campuses. University of Connecticut, a top 20 Land-grant University similar to Michigan State, has been offering college courses in high schools since 1955. They see it as their civic duty. Their ongoing research on the Connecticut Early College Experience identifies the many benefits. Indiana University and Syracuse University offer transferable college courses in specific Michigan high schools now. There is great potential for Michigan to improve as we work to enhance our national and international image. Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University, commented a year ago, something to the affect that in 20 years Michigan business leaders will all be physicists because they’re the only ones left with the willingness to get through the necessary math courses. Right now the system for transition from high school to college math courses is very difficult. The majority of students, as Dr. Simon refers to, end up in remedial math courses that are setbacks and roadblocks to college success. Concurrent enrollment or college in high school could be structured to be a systematic and profound solution to overcome this lack of success in math. The credibility of a structured concurrent enrollment program guided by a large university would add exceptional value to our Higher Education Marketplace. Discussions are happening in our legislature as the state of Michigan embarks on supporting efforts to have concurrent enrollment be offered in high school settings, and funding and quality standards are large concerns. Challenging educational issues such as the breakdown between high school and college math need to be addressed in a holistic manner. Working to establish a stand alone, self-sufficient college readiness program similar, for example, to a Syracuse University Project Advance would greatly benefit our Higher Education Marketplace. Project Advance is an affiliated stand-alone educational program of Syracuse University. This program, accredited by the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partners (NACEP), offers concurrent enrollment classes to over 10,000 students in over 200 high schools taught through nearly 900 high school teachers with adjunct instructor appointments. Of these approximately 10,000 students receiving college credit, only about 4% will attend Syracuse University. Syracuse University Project Advance is not a profit center or a recruiting tool! We know as a state, advancing our Higher Education Marketplace will serve as a driving economic force. Currently Michigan ranks 21st in college and career readiness and we are 8th highest in the nation in debt per college graduate. We need a breakthrough strategy that will boost higher education attainment and overall student outcome, while leading to reduced college costs. Concurrent enrollment or college in high school, guided by a large university, is a viable solution with far-reaching results across a wide range of students.