Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Should Community College Be Free to All?

An interesting proposal to study the idea of making community college free to all Oregon students is making its way through the legislature.  This is just to study the idea but a few caveats come immediately to mind.

One, shouldn't this benefit be means tested?  Wouldn't the better policy be to target low income households?  It is not clear to me that we have to incentivize high income households to send their kids to college.

Two, this raises the opportunity cost of starting at a four year college.  Under this plan, the wise college degree aspirant would go to CC for two years and transfer.  To know if this is a good thing we'd want to know more about the relative success of such a plan in four year degree outcomes.  This might also have a significant impact on Oregon's public four year universities.

Three, whether it significantly improves the high school graduation rates in Oregon which is, I presume, one of the main policy goals.


Jeff Alworth said...

The cost is essentially negligible--$100 million if every student in Oregon used it. I think it's a great idea and would easily pay for itself. I can't really see much cause for worry about abuse. Wealthier students wouldn't choose it as a cost-saver if they're strivers--they'd go to a local four-year school.

Furthermore, it would encourage more students to pursue education that could lead to careers with low salaries--a definite boon for the state.

Doug Gabbard said...

Has anyone (1) determined that there is a positive externality associated with higher education and (2) quantified that externality so that the optimal level of subsidy can be applied? If we don't do this kind of analysis, aren't we just guessing about whether this is a good idea?

Patrick Emerson said...

The research on "social returns to education" is mixed and controversial. Most economists, I would posit, are willing to consider it a reasonable theory but there is still little good evidence and certainly not enough to accurately understand the marginal social returns to individual community college investment.

Enrico Moretti at Berkeley has the most credible evidence of social returns in my view.