Actually it's almost impossible to beat "affordable housing" in Manhattan as the worst possible public policy, but it looks like President Obama has a new contender for the title, namely his proposal announced late last week for universal "free" community college.
Do you think the idea is that a lot of low income people are currently precluded from going to community college by the prohibitive cost? Impossible, and I can't even find any respectable commentator trying to justify the proposal on that ground. According to the Washington Post here (reporting on Obama's proposal) the average cost of community college is about $3800 per year. But low income students qualify for "Pell grants" of over $5000. In other words, the low income students already get their tuition paid plus some, and the bulk of the financial benefit of this new entitlement will therefore be going not to the poor, but to those higher up the income ladder who don't "need" the money, at least as "need" is defined by the Pell grant criteria.
So what is the political calculation? I can't think it's anything more than just transferring some money to a couple of core Obama/Democratic constituencies, namely young voters and academics, to buy their continued loyalty. The program is highly unlikely to pass while the Republicans control Congress, but if somehow it gets enough Republican support with all Democrats and gets through, the Dems say "we got you this big handout"; and if as is likely it fails, they say "the mean Republicans kept you from getting the handouts you deserve."
But this is totally a losing game for the young people who are the main supposed beneficiaries. Even after dramatic recent improvements, the government continues to run deficits around half a trillion dollars per year; and even some rapid economic growth is not going to keep that number from going up substantially as the baby boomers retire and start claiming Social Security and Medicare. So the cost of this new entitlement will be borrowed. Who is going to pay that back? Any young person who has his act together enough to attend post-secondary education, even community college, is highly likely to come out behind when he gets stuck paying his share of the taxes down the road. Are young people dumb enough to fall for the "free handout" line? Well, it seems that plenty of them fell for it as to Obamacare. As Jonathan Gruber so famously said, getting these things passed depends on the "stupidity of the American voter." But I continue to think that the young voters are starting to catch on.
Is it even possible to come up with a respectable justification for this new handout? Here is Richard Kahlenberg taking a stab at it in the Atlantic. Kahlenberg admits that the poor already get grants from the government that exceed their community college tuition, so he justifies Obama's proposal on the basis that giving free community college tuition to middle class students will induce more of them to go to community college, where they will mingle with the poor, and that will cause the poor to get a better education.
While some argue that free tuition for upper- and middle-class students is a waste of resources, in fact it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that community colleges are socioeconomically integrated. We have known since Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational institutions for black and white—or for poor and rich—are rarely equal.
As with affordable housing in Manhattan, it requires believing in perpetual motion machines to think this makes any sense. We'll transfer substantial resources to middle and upper-middle income people from a tax system that raises plenty of money from lower-middle income people, and as payoff we'll get some inchoate and unmeasurable benefits. And I suppose if we try the "free tuition" gambit and still not many upper-middle income people choose to attend community college, then it would make sense to Kahlenberg to offer them cash grants until we buy enough of them to attend. How about $10,000 per rich kid to go to community college? They still won't go? Make it $20,000!
UPDATE, January 14, 2014: Tom Hanks, of all people, weighs in on this issue with an op-ed in today's New York Times. It seems that Tom attended a community college in California called Chabot, and most of the article consists of his praise for the courses and education he received, as well as for the low price (it was free). But of course all that has existed for decades without the need for $60 billion per year in federal largesse. Only in the next-to-last paragraph does Hanks get around to trying to come up with a reason why his experience supposedly justifies support for President Obama's proposal:
I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.
But Tom, community college is already free to the low income, either because the states and localities make it that way, or via Pell grants. What are the currently-existing "obstacles" you are talking about -- the struggle to fill out the Pell grant application? And if you can't name any such obstacles, what is the possible justification for spending another $60 billion a year that will not go to the low income? Kahlenberg at least tries to address that issue, however lamely. Really, Tom, you should stick to acting.