Obama: Make college affordable, not free

By Editor-In-Chief

While much of the nation applauded President Barack Obama’s call for free education at community colleges during his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address, I must admit I felt a little salty. After years of paying Columbia’s arguably exorbitant cost of attendance, the idea of free college for society en masse is a little hard to accept.  

I was more disturbed by the apparent shift in American thought about higher education, though, and the seemingly increasingly popular ideal that college is a civic service that people inherently deserve rather than the investment that it really is. Even more confounding is the recent trend of not holding colleges accountable for their unaffordable tuition.

With the cost of college continuing to rise each year—approximately $8,893 for in-state and $22,203 for out-of-state students at public colleges and $30,094 at private colleges, according to the College Board—it is understandable that Obama’s questionably feasible proposal seems like a victory. However, it is a decision that attempts to put a small bandage on a large economic wound. 

When did college become the new healthcare? And why did Obama suddenly shifted the focus from combating yearly tuition hikes to providing free education?

In his January 2012 State of the Union address, Obama said his administration would explore limiting aid delivered to colleges that did not mitigate yearly tuition hikes.  

Three years later, tuition continues to rise at four-year public and private colleges. Rather than hold those colleges accountable, free community college is now the answer.  

Admittedly, it is a tactic that may motivate four-year colleges to increase aid and decrease tuition—free community college means fewer freshmen and less tuition revenue—but it does not address the overarching issue of affordability. If anything, it creates the potential to increase the cost of attendance as colleges scramble to make up the loss of revenue.

It also does not guarantee that students will be able to finish a four-year program in two if they transfer. A lot of college programs are regimented in a way that makes it impossible to finish in two years, Columbia among them. 

The larger concern is what happens when an already taxed job market suddenly sees an influx of candidates with the same qualifications vying for a limited number of jobs.

A more practical approach to the issue would be to increase aid offered to students that exhibit financial need and to structure a reform system that limits federal aid to colleges with high tuitions. Colleges with high tuition rates should heighten admissions standards to ensure that students are academically successful in addition to being financially responsible. 

Delivering more aid to students pursuing degrees or certifications for professions and trades with an increased demand for members to enter the workforce—such as nursing or technology—is a more prudent way to address the issue of college affordability. 

Providing free community college education is an admirable pursuit, but it is a move that Obama is making to divert attention away from the actual issue. Addressing affordability is the proper move, not doling out college credits like it is an educational version of Oprah’s Favorite Things.