Making Community College ‘Free’ Will Harm Serious Students

College debtIt took nearly a dozen years after graduating from college to pay off the student debt I accumulated to get my degree—and that was in the days when tuition to a private university was around $5,000 a year including room and board. I’ve been through the college-shopping process with three daughters and have looked at asking prices of nearly $50,000 a year at some universities, so I understand the importance of affordability. It’s depressing thinking of kids getting their start in life with college loans the size of mortgages.

Given that reality, it’s also easy to understand Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal that would provide California residents with a “free” second year of community college along with the provision of additional Cal Grant funding for parents who are struggling to put their children through college. This is well intentioned, but is one of the worst ideas in the governor’s new budget given the real-world effect it will have on California students.

The idea of a free college education goes back to California’s earliest days. As recently as 1960, the Master Plan for Higher Education reaffirmed “the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be free to all residents of the state.” Shortly after that, the state university systems began charging tuition—and prices have soared as demand has outstripped supply and the legislature cut back on subsidies. As a matter of policy, it’s a good idea for people to pay for the things they use. If you want an education, you need to pay for it.

Even with a tuition-based system, the University of California and California State University systems are overburdened given that they offer a better deal than most private alternatives. There’s been progress, but it can still take six years to get a degree at a Cal State campus. Many students who cannot get the classes they need at “impacted” campuses.

In all aspects of life, the price mechanism is the best way to assure the right balance of supply and demand. If, say, the government mandated that car dealers slash the price of new cars by 50 percent, buyers theoretically would be able to get a cheaper car—but they’d take a number and wait a long time to actually get one.

Fortunately, California has an incredible system of 115 community colleges. Students who want a good education without saddling themselves with debt can get those first two years of courses inexpensively before finishing their degree at a college or university. In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that provided free tuition to community colleges for state residents who were attending college on a full-time basis and first-time students. They only had to pay some ancillary fees. Newsom’s plan would do the same for that second year. Advocates point to a “skills gap”—the need for Californians to get a better education to fill the needs of the work place.

Community college already is dirt cheap, at $46 a credit. Making it free will only assure that people who aren’t particularly serious about getting an education will take up space in sought-after classes, thus making it tougher for others to get into their preferred classes. This sounds harsh, but people unwilling to invest $1,100 a year in their own education perhaps ought to find something else to do. There is nothing like spending one’s own money to force people to take the coursework seriously.

There are many ways to come up with that relatively small amount and the state already waives fees for the poorest students. And adding additional student aid through Cal Grants will help some people pay for four-year universities, but one of the reasons that college tuition has soared well beyond inflation – and beyond the prices of most consumer goods—is that the aid itself is inflationary.

Back to the car analogy. The average transaction price for a new vehicle has topped $36,000. If the government decided that cars are so important that it was going to provide a $10,000 subsidy for their purchase, you could guess what would happen. Prices would climb given that buyers would have a lot more money to use as a down payment.

The same principle is at work at universities. Tuition has soared and so have debt levels. Easy government loan money has kept universities from making tough spending choices. Unfortunately, it’s hard to break out of that spiral. Universities cost a lot and students who want to attend need to find a way to pay. More debt becomes an easy short-term answer.

The community college system remains the blow-off valve—a way to enable Californians to get a quality education without amassing debt or further burdening the state university systems. It sounds counterintuitive, but making those colleges “free” will only make it tougher on the people that this proposal is supposed to help.

This column was first published by the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at

Californians Want to Make Community College Free

College debt

A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that 53 percent of Golden State adults believe that tuition-free community college should be a priority for the next governor. With the state reporting major cash surpluses, the incoming administration might be inclined to act. But zeroing out the cost of junior colleges won’t save California students much money and will only encourage waste and inefficiency in the state’s bloated higher education bureaucracy.

California residents pay only $46 per credit to attend community college. Full-time tuition and fees add up to about $1,200 annually. Students can earn that much by working just a few hours each week, gaining job experience, and honing their time management skills in the process. Furthermore, $1,200 is just the sticker price: lower income students receive financial aid packages that often exceed their tuition.

Peralta Community College District, which operates four campuses in Alameda County, reported revenues of $270 million for the 2016-17 school year to educate 15,768 full time equivalent students. This works out to $17,000 per student. But net tuition and fee revenue amounted to only $19 million and was more than offset by $38 million in financial aid expenses. Most of the district’s income came from state and federal subsidies as well as local property taxes.

And Peralta district voters are willing to give more. Last month, they approved an eight year extension of a parcel tax to provide continued operational funding and an $800 million bond measure to improve district facilities.

So taxpayers are already investing a lot in community colleges, but what are they getting? Only 30 percent of California community students graduate or transfer to four-year schools within six years of enrolling. Low educational attainment rates are, in part, the result of community colleges accepting students who are not ready for higher education: about 80 percent of new enrollees require some form of remedial education. Encouraging more unprepared students to enter the system through the offer of free tuition would likely reduce success rates even further.

While student preparation plays a role in poor educational outcomes, mismanagement at the institutions themselves also contributes to the problem. Although Peralta receives $17,000 to educate each student, much of this money is diverted to administrative staff and potentially misappropriated. Despite lower enrollment, the district added 23 administrators between 2012 and 2017. Meanwhile, both the district’s spokesperson and the chair of its citizen oversight committee stepped down from their positions and issued complaints about waste and corruption at Peralta.

Unfortunately, the problems aren’t limited to just one district. In 2013, City College of San Francisco nearly lost its accreditation largely due to financial management issues. Last year, California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found unsustainable fiscal conditions at Santa Barbara City College and Victor Valley Community College District.

Before throwing more money at these districts, state leaders should insist that they be more tightly managed. Meanwhile, legislators could save students money at no taxpayer cost by ordering community colleges to replace expensive textbooks with free online instructional materials. According to an online calculator provided by the state’s community college system, the estimated annual cost of books and supplies is greater than in-state tuition. Although the system has piloted a “zero-textbook-cost degree” program, it could be doing more to save students from having to buy latest edition textbooks and accompanying study guides.

“Tuition free community college” might be a great meme, but as a policy it leaves much to be desired. Current tuition costs are so low that they are not a meaningful barrier to attendance for serious students. Zeroing out tuition risks attracting more unserious students, driving down graduation rates and driving up the amount of tax money being wasted at these institutions.

Marc Joffe is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

This article was originally published by

Lawmakers question Gov. Brown’s plan to overhaul funding for California’s community colleges

Community CollegeKey California lawmakers who shape education policy are questioning Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to dramatically overhaul how community colleges are funded. The proposal calls for tying some money to student outcomes, moving away from a model that funds colleges largely based on how many students they enroll.

Some lawmakers are saying it is rushed and lacks enough buy-in from college presidents and faculty. Others worry the plan may result in financial harm to colleges and their students.

“I think there are valid concerns on this whole thing,” said Senator Anthony J. Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge), chair of Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee No. 1 on Education, during a Thursday hearing discussing Brown’s plan.

“I think the goals are good,” he said, but when “the colleges themselves [are] raising concerns, we need to take that seriously.”

Brown’s plan would need the support of both chambers of the Legislature before the June 15 deadline to pass the state’s budget for 2018-19. The administration on May 14 is scheduled to release the so-called “May Revision” to its budget that could include updates to the formula plan.

Since the budget funds the community colleges there is pressure in the Legislature to resolve this issue within the next few weeks.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, (D – Sacramento), who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, asked the representatives of the governor’s team and the California Community College to take into consideration feedback from lawmakers and other groups when drafting the May Revision. “We’ll look at that and we may come up with our own alternative plan or nix the plan altogether,” he said Wednesday. “We reserve that right, certainly.”

The leadership of the California Community Colleges system is proposing changes to improve the formula in Brown’s plan. “We support the framework proposed in the governor’s budget, but we do think there are ways that we can improve the formula itself,” said Christian Osmeña, vice chancellor of college finance and facilities planning, on Thursday.

The Brown administration says the new proposal is needed because the current formula “encourages districts to prioritize enrollment without regard for student success, such as timely completion and better serving under-represented students,” said Maritza Urquiza, an analyst for Gov. Brown’s Department of Finance, during the Thursday Senate hearing. She added that the current formula could discourage colleges from steering students to get their degrees faster, because doing so would mean fewer students enrolled and the dollars tied to them.

Brown’s community college funding proposal would target more than $6 billion in annual community college “general-purpose” funding so that a quarter of that money is tied to the academic success of students. Another 25 percent of the funding under Brown’s plan would be based on how many students receive federal Pell grants and state tuition waivers. The remaining 50 percent would be tied to student enrollment. All of this would go into effect in 2018-19, which starts July 1 of this year.

The Wednesday and Thursday hearings were the last before Brown releases the May Revision and the first to give a deep look into the proposals.

“Where are the facts, where is the data,” asked Asm. Jose Medina (D – Riverside), chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “I just don’t know that six months from January to June is enough time for the Legislature to really make informed decisions on something so important as this.”

The Brown Administration says it’s been available to answer questions. “We have very much leaned forward in providing information and [are] seeking input on this proposal,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for Gov. Brown’s Department of Finance, in an email.

Asm. Al Muratsuchi (D – Torrance) cited a letter he received from Dena P. Maloney, president of El Camino College, reading in part that “this may prove to be the worst experiment in public higher education California has ever seen” if Brown’s plan isn’t studied to determine its impact on school finances and students.

“If the CEO of one of the most successful community colleges in the state of California is saying that they’re not being adequately consulted, I have a problem with that,” Muratsuchi said.

“And as long as I’m hearing things like this, I cannot support the governor’s funding formula.”

In an interview, Maloney said that while she is not opposed to a funding model that’s based partially on how well students perform, “the devil is in the details.”

But faculty groups are forceful in their opposition to a performance-based funding model. “We’re going to become nothing more than diploma mills” if a plan that ties funding to student outcomes passes, said Jim Mahler, president of the Community College Council, an affiliate union to the California Federation of Teachers, at the Wednesday hearing. He and others worry a funding model based on outcomes could put pressure on faculty to inflate grades so that more students show positive results, watering down academic standards.

February report by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office said that if Brown’s plan were instituted the community college system could track colleges for signs of grade inflation or pushing students into cheaper degree programs to boost their outcomes figures.

Not all lawmakers were skeptical of the plan. Asm. Rocky Chávez (R – Oceanside) said “there are some good things here,” but that implementing the formula will likely take several years.

The hearings followed the release of a report by a workgroup of community college presidents and district chancellors commissioned by the community college system that concluded Brown’s “initial proposal needs significant refinement to meet its intended goal of promoting greater access and success for all Californians needing college and career training.”

That workgroup report, released Monday, calls for a formula that ties 75 percent of the $6 billion pot to how many students the colleges enroll and the remaining 25 percent based on a combination of how well students perform and whether those students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. The workgroup’s plan would measure performance by how many students earn degrees, their course work progression, transfer to a four-year college and their eventual wage earnings.

It also favors rewarding colleges money not just based on how many students receive financial aid, as Brown’s plan calls for, but also on how many students are low-income, single parents, have disabilities and other factors.

Studies on whether students do better when states fund colleges in part based on student performance are mixed. In some states that have performance-based funding formulas for community colleges, students earned more associate degrees, while in others they earned fewer. Other research indicates such formulas boost the number of degrees that take a short time to complete.

“The research doesn’t show a significant improvement in student outcomes,” said Edgar Cabral, an analyst at the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, at Wednesday’s hearing. Still, the office largely supports Brown’s measure, saying in the February report that at least 20 percent of the $6 billion pot should be based on student outcomes, though with some modifications, such as tying additional funding to the performance of low-income students.

The analyst’s office also indicated that the outcomes-based model would align with the various programs the Legislature funded in the past few years to improve the graduation and transfer rates of students.

Brown’s budget for next year would be equal to a 53 percent increase in per-student state Proposition 98 spending since 2011-12, rising from $5,254 to his proposed $8,031, according to Legislative Analyst’s Office data that’s adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, there has been no substantial increase in community college completion rates between 2011-12 and 2016-17: The rate changed from 49.2 percent in 2011-12 to 47.3 percent in 2014-15 to 48.2 percent in 2016-17.

“What we’re doing is not in any way, shape or form working for any Californian, period,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges, at the system’s Board of Governors March meetings.

Mikhail Zinshteyn reports on college and career preparation in California

This article was originally published by

L.A. Community College District Seeks Billions More for Buildings

L.A. Community CollegeIn May, the Los Angeles Community College District put out the word that it wanted to hire a public relations firm.

A website called reported that the “scope of the work” included developing “a communications strategy” to “help the district explore the feasibility of a district-wide bond measure.”

That means the PR firm will have to explain to voters who already approved nearly $6 billion in borrowed money that the district has spent it all and wants $3.3 billion more. The publicists should get hazard pay.

The Los Angeles Community College District has nine campuses with about 135,000 students enrolled. In the San Fernando Valley, the LACCD schools are Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Mission College in Sylmar, and Valley College in Valley Glen.

Sixteen years ago, California voters approved Proposition 39 to allow education bonds to pass more easily, requiring only 55 percent voter approval instead of two-thirds. The next year, local voters approved Proposition A, authorizing the Los Angeles Community College District to borrow $1.2 billion by selling bonds to investors.

Two years later, the district persuaded voters to approve Proposition AA for almost $1 billion more.

By 2008, the money had run out and the district came back to the voters for an additional $3.5 billion, bringing the total to $5.7 billion of borrowed money – about $11 billion including interest – that’s paid back to investors by raising property taxes. It shows up as an extra charge on the bill, for decades.

What did all that money buy?

Bond money can’t legally be used for the salaries of faculty, staff or administrators. It can’t be used for operations or general expenses. It can only be used for facilities – mostly for renovating and constructing buildings.

In 2011, investigations by the Los Angeles Times and the State Controller’s office uncovered massive waste, fraud, and mismanagement in the bond program. …

Click here to read the full story from the L.A. Daily News

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