All three networks on Friday hyped Barack Obama's call for "free community college," but CBS, NBC and ABC offered very little skepticism about the cost or feasability of such a proposal. Instead, Today news reader Natalie Morales sounded like a press release, enthusing, "Relief could be on the way for college students facing skyrocketing tuition costs. President Obama said Thursday night that he would like to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it."
Earlier, she murmured, "Community college for free?" On CBS This Morning, Bill Plante just regurgitated why this announcement was a good move for the White House: "The idea behind laying this out today is to preview the State of the Union message, which is designed to propose alternatives to the agendas of the Republican-controlled Congress."
It wasn't until the very end of the segment that Plante quickly offered what should be an important point: "But so far the administration is not saying what this would cost."
Instead, he included two clips of Barack Obama talking up the vague proposal in a Facebook video. It was only on ABC's Good Morning America that Amy Robach noted, "Critics say such a plan is almost impossible politically, especially with no specific price tag." But that segment was only 23 seconds.
Today offered two reports amounting to 46 seconds. The best Morales could do was to explain, "Administration officials didn't provide many details about where the money would come from..."
It's not as though there aren't questions to ask. Forbes.com offered a few:
Will direct federal funding compel community colleges to improve? Free college proponents have argued that since the feds are kicking in money directly, they’ll have more power to push community colleges to get better. This seems to be the thought process behind the requirement that colleges adopt “promising evidence-based institutional reforms” (which sounds an awful lot like Race to the Top).
The assumption here is that the feds will be able to drive community college improvement if they hold the purse strings. Again, I’m skeptical. To be sure, policymakers could conceivably control tuition prices through funding formulas and fiat. But they will have a much more difficult time ensuring that institutions provide a quality education at the price they charge. The federal Title 1 program in K-12 has struggled to improve underperforming public schools, even with the expansive accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind.
Will federal bureaucrats have an easier time raising student achievement in community colleges?
“Free tuition” won’t change how much it costs to deliver higher education, which will continue to increase. A public option would change who pays for higher education, but not necessarily how much it costs to provide it. Economists argue that traditional higher education is like other service industries: because the product consists of interaction with highly educated labor in small groups, it is difficult to raise productivity. As wages rise in the rest of the economy, colleges must pay employees more even though their output doesn’t increase, leading to higher costs.
Simply shifting who pays the bill will do little to change the bill itself. So while additional federal investments might cover the cost of a free public option today, those same sums won’t go as far next year or the year after unless colleges also make changes to their cost structure. Taxpayers would have to foot an increasingly large bill.
CNN on Friday didn't cover the new proposal, but Un Nuevo Dia on the Spanish language channel Telemundo did. Host Neida Sandoval echoed the American reports, promoting "Meanwhile, President Barack Obama announced he's working on a proposal which will permit that the community universities of higher education will be free for those who are willing to work for it in the United States."
A transcript of the January 9 CBS This Morning segment is below:
CBS GRAPHIC: Free Community College? Obama Plan Aims to Provide Two Years of Tuition
NORAH O'DONNELL: President Obama will announce a plan this morning for free community college. The goal is to make college, college education, more assessable. The proposal is a preview of this months' State of the Union. It would use a combination of federal and state funding to cover the first two years for costs for many students. Bill Plante is at the White House with the plan. Bill, good morning.
BILL PLANTE: Good morning. Well, the President unveils this today in Tennessee where – is a state is already committed to the idea. To do this nationally would take legislation and approval from the Republican-led Congress and the White House knows that's a high hurdle. But the President is pitching the idea as a pathway to college education.
BARACK OBAMA: Put simply, what I'd like to do is see the first two years of community college free for everybody's who's willing to work for it.
PLANTE: The White House is hoping to ease the financial burden cost of college tuition for an estimated nine million students. The proposal would wave the first two full years of tuition for full-time and half-time students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average. The Department of Labor says people with a two year degree earn about $20,000 more per year than those with only a high school diploma. Almost 90 percent of Tennessee high school seniors have applied to a new program called Tennessee Promise, which would cover tuition for those applying to community or tech colleges. The state says they have received over 57,000 applications. One of the requirements, eight hours of community service before classes begin.
BILL HASLAM: Tennessee will be the very first state in the country to make that guarantee to its people.
PLANTE: Tennessee's Republican Governor Bill Haslam says the state will use an estimated $34 million a year from federal aid and lottery sales to pay for it. The White House proposal says that federal funding will cover three quarter of the average cost for students and that states will pick up the rest of the tab.
BARACK OBAMA: It's something that we can accomplish and it's something that will train our work force so we can compete with anybody in the world.
PLANTE: The idea behind laying this out today is to preview the State of the Union message, which is designed to propose alternatives to the agendas of the Republican-controlled Congress. But so far the administration is not saying what this would cost.