This article was published by The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, June 8, 2015:
In 2008 the city council of Knoxville, Tennessee created “Knoxville Achieves”, a philanthropically-funded free tuition program for lower income families who couldn’t afford college. It blended private funds with requirements that students receiving “last dollar” benefits (tuition expenses remaining after grants, scholarships and personal resources were used up) would be guided by volunteer mentors through regular consultations and planning sessions. If the students didn’t meet certain minimum performance standards, the mentoring stopped and so did the money.
This was a local response to the pitiful results, in general, that community college students were obtaining. Barely 20 percent of them obtain their associate’s degree after three years. It’s supposed to take two.
The first year 496 students received tuition assistance, with good results appearing almost immediately. It wasn’t the money – it was the mentoring and the tracking, following, and monitoring that made the difference. Students were, some for the first time, being held personally accountable to a friendly volunteer, along with receiving a financial incentive.
It worked so well that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law the “Tennessee Promise” in 2014, this time funded with lottery proceeds. Word got around, and nearly all of Tennessee’s high school seniors immediately applied for tuition assistance – some 58,000 of them! The program attracted 9,200 volunteer mentors, who were immediately assigned to students receiving assistance and, while the results are tentative, they are impressive. Seventy percent of them receiving assistance are staying in school for at least a year. More of them are staying in school and getting their degrees than ever before.
The “Tennessee Promise” began to get national attention, some of it not so good. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama announced his “America’s College Promise” with the standard promise that it would result in more kids going to school, getting better educated and taking better jobs. He upped the ante considerably: rather than providing “last dollar” assistance, he wanted the government to pay for it all – about $3,800 per student, for an estimated nine million students. To elicit the proper response from the states, his plan would be to force the states to pay $2 billion a year into the $8 billion annual program, even if they didn’t want to, or didn’t have the money.
The program would come with other strings as well, as federal funds always do. But, said the president, community colleges are the pathway to success, and federal assistance/gifts are necessary:
They work for people who work full-time. They work for parents who have to raise kids full-time. They work for folks who have gone as far as their [current] skills will take them and want to earn new ones, but don’t have the capacity to just suddenly go study for four years and not work.
Nothing was said about incentives that would cause students receiving federal largesse to work harder. Nothing was said about taxpayers who would be paying for this federal experiment. Nothing was said about how this would help accomplish another of Obama’s goals: “cradle-to-career” educational assistance and interference. It would, in one analyst’s words, create a government-funded six-year high school experience for nearly every student in the land.
Nothing was said about another distortion in the market place: when something becomes cheaper, more of it will be demanded. An $8 billion program in the first year could become gargantuan in a decade. It would expand the already outrageous – to say nothing about unconstitutional – $70 billion of federal money (sorry: taxpayer funds) already being spent on federal grants and assistance, to say nothing of the $100+ billion on student loans every year. It will prove to be another example of the ratchet effect: if enacted, it will always grow, never shrink.
It even caught the jaundiced eye of Economist magazine, which noted that Obama’s dream “could have perverse effects. States might cut direct funding to community colleges and put all their cash into aid for students, since this would attract three federal dollars for every one [the state] spends.”
It would remove incentive from those colleges to keep costs down. With free money, what incentive could there be? Federal programs have already pushing tuition costs higher, twice the rate of inflation, and this program from Obama would simply add to that pressure.
Even the liberal Huffington Post, which rarely criticizes a government program, had trouble swallowing Obama’s idea. As contributor Steve Siebold (a noted “critical thinking” expert) noted,
The national debt now exceeds $18 trillion and continues to spiral out of control. Here’s a critical thinking news flash for the President: we’re broke!
Not only that, but free money de-emphasizes personal responsibility and increases the mentality of dependency and the expectation of something for nothing, according to Siebold:
Beyond the economics of it, what message are we sending students? Handing them free education on a platter reinforces entitlement. They think, “I can have it for nothing and don’t have to work for it.” What kind of lesson is that? What values does that teach?
Free tuition in Tennessee, offered with student mentors to keep them on track, seems to be working well. But once the federal government gets in on the act, everything changes. Force replaces voluntarism (isn’t Tennessee the “Volunteer State”?), federal regulations pile on in order to “assure compliance” with “federal standards,” and incentives to do well on the part of both the colleges and the students disappear out the window. With federal funding of anything come federal strings. In education this means more spending of other peoples’ money, poorer performance, lower quality education, and more dependency.
Come to think of it, isn’t that the “change” that Obama promised? Happily, Congress in its infinite wisdom has not decided to inflict this particular bit of mischief onto Americans. At least not yet.
The Economist: Zero tuition
The Tennessean: Tennessee Promise aims to change face of state colleges
Huffington Post: Why Obama’s ‘America’s College Promise’ Is a Bad Idea