Reviewing the facts, fantasies and fallacies of The State of the Union

Congress and Global warming are not the only threats to the union. A president's tenuous grasp on reality may be.

State of Union | 2014
State of Union | 2014

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2015 – The crisis is over. All America has to fear is climate change.

On the foreign front, Russia is contained; Putin has been defanged by American sanctions. ISIL has been put on the ropes by American leadership; ground troops are not required. Iran is moving away from making a nuclear bomb; the biggest security threat left in the region is Congress, which in contemplating sanctions is pushing us towards war.

On the domestic front, the economy is booming; it needs now only to be made more humane and the rewards of growth less unequal. This is what Obama says Democrats and Republicans were sent to Washington to do, and he invites them to do it.

The president wants to work with Congress. If they attempt to change Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, place sanctions on Iran or approve the Keystone XL pipeline – anything that the Republicans are keen to do – he’ll veto them. Instead they should focus on finding ways to support what Obama wants to do: raise the minimum wage, provide universal sick leave, and fund an enormous new education program.

stumulsIf they will only do what he wants, they will be able to work together.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was a blend of pragmatism, partisanship, boosterism, and fantasy. He extended a hand of friendship to congressional Republicans, and also threatened to close it into a fist and beat them with it if they don’t take it. He described a world where Congress is a bigger threat to world peace than Iran, ISIL or Russia.

A portion of Obama’s speech focused on education. After touting the successes of free public high schools and the GI Bill at expanding educational opportunity, he proposed an initiative to make two years at community colleges free, contingent only on maintaining good grades.

In discussion leading up to the speech, Obama and his administration have admitted that his junior college initiative will be expensive. According to Obama, 40 percent of America’s college students are in community colleges, and the cost of paying their tuition will be enormous. But they also argue that it will ultimately pay for itself as 2-year graduates hit the job market with their new skills and begin paying taxes.

If community college is made free, it will certainly attract greater numbers of applicants. Unless the program contains cost-containment measures, though, it will push up he costs associated with community college.

America’s college faculty will benefit from this program. It will increase the demand for faculty at junior colleges, which will create some competition for faculty at four-year colleges and universities. The impact will be to boost wages of college faculty across the board, pushing up costs across the board.

Even if tuition is free, education will not be. Colleges and universities in Sweden do not charge students tuition; a college education is nominally free. Yet 85 percent of Swedish students graduate with debt, compared to only 50 percent of American students. The average debt of Swedish students is a bit over $19,000, about $5,000 less than the average debt of American students, but a larger percentage of their expected income after college – over 80 percent, compared with just 60 percent for Americans.

The fact that tuition is free doesn’t mean that education is free. Housing, food, transportation, books, and other expenses of going to college drive Swedish students to take on debt in college. As more kids go to college, those expenses will tend to go up.

None of this is a solid argument against free community college tuition. It suggests, though, that American college students should not expect that program to mean a free or cheap education, or to mean graduation without debt. Some students will come out of the program winners; others will emerge as losers.

Among the losers will be those who don’t finish with a degree. Retention rates at private and public colleges and universities vary across the country, but at state-run schools, the schools most similar to the community colleges, it is not unusual for less than 40 percent of incoming freshman to graduate within five years.

In 2012, the six-year graduation rate for freshmen entering college in 2006 was 59 percent. The rate was higher at private institutions than at public schools – 66 percent versus 57 percent. The less selective the public school, though, the lower that rate. At open-admission four-year colleges – the colleges with admission policies and students most like those at two-year colleges, the graduation rate was 33 percent. Schools that were selective, accepting less than 25 percent of applicants, had a completion rate of 86 percent.

Students drop out of school for a variety of reasons, and finances is one of them, but it is not the most important. Making community college free will attract more students, but it is unlikely to help the completion rate. For that, students need to be better prepared, and students likely to fail need to be removed from the applicant pool.

President Obama said in his speech that two-out-of three jobs in the next decade will require some higher education. That begs the question, what kind of higher education? A program that increases the number of English and sociology majors is not likely to fill any vital workforce needs.

Community colleges have some fine vocational and technical programs, but these colleges are not vocational schools. Many students use them as a jumping off point for four-year colleges, a place to take some required college courses and build their GPAs.

If Obama’s proposal eventually becomes a program, it might become a success, but only if it is intelligently constructed, not something that is highly likely. It would need to push students into fields that will have some real market value – information systems, medical technology, and healthcare services – not into associate degree programs in sociology. It will have to discourage students likely to fail, and not encourage them to accumulate debts on their way to failure.

Most important, it will have to avoid pushing up costs at four-year institutions. That isn’t likely. The injection of government money into education over the last few decades is one reason that college costs have grown faster than the inflation rate. When students are handed money to go to college, college costs rise.

Obama claims that free higher education will pay for itself. That claim has been made for infrastructure projects, as well. In theory the possibility is there. In practice, you get bridges to nowhere and badly built roads. Before we attempt to expand enrollments and eliminate tuition, we should work to improve retention and preparation for college studies. If we can’t do that or afford to do that, we can’t afford free tuition, either.

Listen to Dr. Picht and Host Lisa Ruth discuss the State of the Union address on The CommDigiNews Hour



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  • Ann Iston

    It’s not the intentions of ice-age deniers we have to live with, it’s the consequences.