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Could Free Community College Change Norms Like Welfare Reform Did?

I am of two minds about President Barack Obama’s plans for reforming higher education. His proposal for free community college has received a thumbs-down from most independent-minded policy experts, including my Brookings colleague Stuart Butler, on at least three strong grounds.

First, because plenty of financial assistance is already available to poor students, most of the benefit would go to the non-poor. (This is the main criticism from the political left). Second, tuition is a small part of most people’s college costs; board and lodgings are often a greater expense. Third, getting people to stay in community college is a bigger challenge than attracting them in the first place (most enrolled students do not return the following year).

These are powerful arguments, and no self-respecting policy wonk could sensibly disagree with them. Yet there is also something powerful about the Obama initiative. For one thing, the community college plan has to be seen in the broader context of his reforms to the tax system, essentially shifting resources from tax breaks for the affluent to tax credits for all. Even if the free-community-college element is weakly targeted, the overall package is highly progressive. And if more affluent students make use of the offer and go to community college, that would be good news on other fronts, not least in breaking down class barriers between two- and four-year colleges.

But the other issue is the potential for a policy like free community college to shift social norms. In effect, the Obama team wants to shift the education norm from K-12 to K-14, both to meet the economic demands of the 21st century and to promote greater equality. Tennessee’s experience, where nine out of 10 high-school students are signing up, suggests that the simple message “It’s free” has a powerful effect on behavior. People don’t act like perfectly informed rational decision makers in terms of accessing financial assistance. But everyone gets “free.”

My guess is that most of the arguments being made against free community college could be made against free education for 11th and 12th graders too. But the provision of free education up to 12th grade has undoubtedly helped to drive up high school graduation rates. Right now K-12 is the norm. Perhaps in decades to come, we’ll think of K-14 in the same way.

In the 1990s, welfare reforms made changes to policy that, on the basis of the existing evidence, were unlikely to have huge effects. But it turned out that the effects were striking, in large part because they changed the social norm about the role of paid work for low-income families. When norms change, so does the context for policy calculations. The idea of free community college has the potential to be a norm-shifting policy, one with bigger effects than current models would imply.

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