Americans like Obama's free community college idea... if they don't have to pay for it

Some days I’m not sure what causes me to shake my head in disbelief more… the policies coming out of the White House or the people who answer the phones for Rasmussen polls. The polling subject this week was all about the idea that community college should be free for every student who manages good enough grades to go. It turns out that a small plurality are up for that idea… provided they don’t have to pay anything extra for it.

Voters tend to like President Obama’s idea of free community college for millions of students – as long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 47% of Likely U.S. Voters favor a new government program that would make community college tuition-free. Thirty-nine percent (39%) are opposed. Fourteen percent (14%) are undecided.

They obtained the qualifying clause in the totals from the third question in the set. Are you willing to pay more in taxes so that millions of Americans can attend community college tuition-free? That one was pretty much a non-starter.

This is a rather odd set of responses, mostly because it brings us back to the Free Pony for Everyone theory of government. Sure, you’d take a free pony, but you also know that ponies are not, in fact, free. So somebody has to pay for it. The government only has one measurable source of revenue, and that’s your tax dollars. Where did you think the money was going to come from?

These responses also seem to reflect something of a disconnect when you consider that most Americans are already worried about how much college costs and what their kids are getting out of it. A majority feel that one reason tuition is too high is the wide, easy availability of student loans. A staggering portion of the public in that same poll – nearly 90% – would rather see tuition lowered than an increase in the availability of loans. Clearly they are grasping the fundamental issues which affect their costs and see the need for a more efficient secondary education system which doesn’t just continue to pump up their bills. But at the same time, when you dangle a shiny object in front of them they are willing to toss their support behind it if you can make them believe that they won’t be stuck with the tab.

Forbes identified some of the chief problems with this free community college scheme last week, but clearly more work needs to be done to get the word out to John and Jane Q. Public. They point out that One Size Fits All solutions for education at the federal level rarely work out well. The needs of the individual states produce a lot more diversity and choice for parents and students. On top of that, the poorest students who really need the help already qualify for Pell grants which make two year schools almost universally free for them anyway. When you factor in the fact that only three in ten students who start community college finish it today, flooding the system with even more bodies probably isn’t going to bode well. (The plan doesn’t even address the fact that the base costs for the schools will rise as they require more resources to support a flood of new students.)

This proposal is most likely the sort of thing that sounds great at the State of the Union speech, but probably won’t get very far. Unfortunately, it serves for a great distraction to draw the public’s attention away when we already have some significantly bigger fish sizzling away in the pan.

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