Are We Prepared for President Obama's Free Community Colleges?

Earlier this month, President Obama proposed reducing the cost of community colleges to "zero." Mr. Obama said: "I want to make it free."

As The Washington Post suggested in a subsequent editorial, "investing in education is a smart long-term strategy" when addressing income inequality and American competitiveness. The Post proposes means testing community college assistance to prevent the program from becoming a "new middle class entitlement" and adopting strategies like increasing Pell Grants that could be used for undergraduate students at four-year institutions as well.

Let's divide the implications of a free community college into two categories: the philosophical and the practical.

On a philosophical level, the president's goal to make a community college education free for Americans is ambitious and laudatory. In doing so, Mr. Obama makes an important policy statement about his own education legacy. His proposal is clear and unambiguous in principle. Further, Mr. Obama's proposal outlines some standards for acceptance, persistence, quality, and job placement that define the outlines of the new policy.

We should congratulate Mr. Obama for his leadership in articulating policy in what has been an otherwise checkered effort by his administration to launch "score cards" and tighten the regulatory environment without a clear sense of national policy goals to move the higher education agenda. While the proposal is not likely to survive, it does introduce a new dynamic into the debate on how to increase access in American higher education.

And it's at this point where the philosophical must meet the practical.

For purposes of discussion, let's assume that any proposal for a free community college education will have dozens of constituencies weighing in on how to sculpt the program. But among them, at least three groups - the government, community colleges, and the rest of higher education -- need to think about this question: "What would be the ramifications should a proposal like Mr. Obama's move forward?

To government policy makers, perhaps the best advice is to think through what you propose before you say it. Mr. Obama captured the critical high moral ground with his community college initiative. Yet, every action has implications that will likely force many of the proposal's supporters to choose the practical over the philosophical.

If the free community college proposal went ahead, for example, should it do so without means testing? Why is this proposal - estimated to cost $60 billion in new federal commitments over ten years in a cost sharing partnership with the states - better than a corresponding increase in the funding of Pell Grants? Is it really sensible to pick "winners and losers" among the higher education community when 50 percent of first-time freshman begin their studies at community colleges - and 50 percent do not?

Does choosing community colleges effectively "gut" both the public and private four-year colleges and universities as students flock to the cheaper, government-subsidized alternative? If federal budgets are rationing tools, will there be enough new money to sustain current programming and other new, entrepreneurial approaches across higher education? If free community colleges damage and close four-year colleges and universities - including those that should remain open by any sensible standard - is the economic impact on the region that they serve fully understood as the government-induced closures spread across the country?

At community colleges, is there enough infrastructure - people, programs and facilities - in place to support a massive influx of students whose costs will not be covered fully by the free tuition program? Do the millions of "college degree required" job openings posted over the next ten years mean a two-year or four-year degree? Are transfer programs in place that will create a seamless transition between the two-year and four-year experiences? How can persistence rates at community colleges be improved to translate into two-year certificates and four-year degrees? With counselor/student ratios approximating 1000/1 at some community colleges, is the mentoring that guides students along a college pathway in place to seal the deal that leads to a four-year degree?

For higher education, the questions are more strategic. Have four-year colleges and universities differentiated their academic programs sufficiently to be an attractive option to a free community college education? Do they build admissions classes by adding community college transfers to their legacies, athletes, foreign-born, and "over the transom" applicants? Are they prepared to downsize, and more fundamentally, do they have a strategic plan that positions them successfully in a fair and open competition? Does their financial aid discount policy make sense any longer?

That having been said, hats off to the president for proposing a "big idea" for higher education. Perhaps when the philosophical meets the practical, however, it might be better to invite the players to the table earlier to seek their input. There is a difference between a "listening tour" checked off on a "to do" list and a strategy that puts dreamers and practitioners together to produce consensus-based policy.

The president is right to support and fund community colleges. More generally, higher education cannot assume that "tweaking" a creaking and outdated educational program will imagine policy that leads to the next big push for access and choice. The current system - especially how we finance higher education - is on life support. But picking winners and losers without fully understanding the dramatic implications, whether positive or negative, will diminish the ingenuity of the President's action. In the end, a good idea will become bad public policy.