Next big Obama agenda item: "free" community college

“Free” should always be in scare quotes, because it won’t be free at all. The latest entitlement proposal comes off the long and hoary list of progressive hobby horses, a giveaway that benefits students and even more the teachers needed to fill the sudden demand the erasure of pricing signals will create. The bill will get picked up by the taxpayers, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Barack Obama will check this box off of the liberal wish list today, with almost zero chance of getting it past a Republican Congress already wondering when we’ll stop borrowing 40 cents of every federal dollar spent:

President Obama on Friday will propose making community college tuition-free for “responsible students,” launching what officials described as an ambitious plan for the federal and state governments to widen access to higher education.

Under a program dubbed America’s College Promise, administration officials said, an estimated 9 million students a year nationwide could benefit. The average tuition savings for a full-time student at a public two-year college was estimated to be $3,800 a year.

Obama’s goal, said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House’s domestic policy director, is “to make two years of college the norm — the way high school is the norm.” …

In scale, the proposal’s cost appeared likely to range into tens of billions of dollars over a decade. New federal spending, especially of this magnitude, are likely to face stiff resistance by the Republican-controlled Congress.

Over a decade? The ironic twist of aiming this at “responsible students” in the midst of an avalanche of red ink is pretty remarkable. Just off of the tuition alone for 9 million students, ignoring the administrative costs, the program would cost $34.2 billion when it ramps up to its full potential — each year.  The plan imagines that states will pick up 25% of the cost, but most states don’t have any more budget room than the federal government does, and can’t print their own money to cover the difference.

And that’s at the current rate of demand, too. When it starts becoming free, not only will more students choose two-year college over a job, but it will also benefit those who would have made that choice already, as well as incentivize those who might have gone to a four-year college to change their plans. When the demand increases, then so will tuitions — just as we have seen with college loan programs — and the price of this entitlement will skyrocket. We will have expanded rather than solved the higher-education bubble. By then, of course, everyone who pushed it will be out of office, especially Obama, and styling themselves as The Great Educators rather than the spendthrifts who saddled the middle class with even more insane debt.

In a way, though, this is sheer brilliance from Obama. This doesn’t have a prayer of getting passed in this Congress, and he knows it. It’s merely a construct to Show Obama Cares About You, while at the same time gives the media another Republicans Are Just Flint-Hearted Meanies narrative to push. This is what passes for leadership in the Obama era. Get ready for more contrived stunts like this over the next two years.