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Tom Hanks Loves #FreeCommunityCollege and So Do I

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

Is it possible for Tom Hanks to be any more lovable? Apparently, yes. Last week, the actor who made such endearing classics as Big, The ‘Burbs, and Turner & Hooch published an editorial about his time at Chabot Community College. After discussing his experiences, he concluded, “That place made me what I am today.”

Hanks wrote the op-ed in response to President Obama’s plan to provide free community college. Of course, the policy warrants a critical discussion. The research is mixed about the effectiveness of two-year colleges. Scholars have long discussed the possibility of a “cooling out” that may occur; others focus on the lack of degree completion among students and poor alignment between two- and four-year colleges. For instance, less than two-thirds of students who enter community college will graduate with a degree after three years.

Others argue that Obama is wasting billions of dollars. After all, pathways to college and career begin years before community college. Why not spend the money on early education or remediation? Consider that, in a city like New York, less than half of the students from the lowest performing schools graduate. Of those who do, less than a quarter are college-ready.

Bill wrote last week about the possible externalities of the ambitious plan. Yes, it may increase college access for low-income students; privileged students may also partake. With a limited amount of resources and no such thing as pure public goods, perhaps the government ought to target the provision of services. Established policy scholars presented similarly incisive arguments when mayoral candidates during New York City’s last election waved big, bright flags for universal pre-kindergarten. Few discussed the downsides of such a simple and alluring idea. Namely, scholarship indicates that low-income children benefit the most from pre-k. In such a cash-strapped state and city, why would politicians subsidize a service for middle- and high-income children when the gains will likely be minimal?

I agree with all of the above concerns. The plan may be a colossal waste of money. It may not improve college access or address the core problems of the pre-k to college pipeline. It may never even survive the whims of the political process. And yet, I’m thrilled.

Prior examples show that sometimes politicians—rather than using the results of a cost-benefit analysis—ought to make decisions based on ideals. That’s part of being an ethical policymaker.

Postsecondary education made me a more thoughtful and compassionate person. It also prepared me for a career that I love. I was a first-generation college student. My family couldn’t afford a four-year university. I attended community college. I eventually earned a Ph.D. One wouldn’t have been possible without the other. Everyone should have the same opportunity.

My wife and I are also one of the first cohorts who have incurred so much student loan debt that—despite everyone trumpeting the value of postsecondary education—the financial burden may outweigh the benefit. The cost is even higher for first-generation students today. That’s wrong and something needs to change.

Maybe the free community college plan fails. Or, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, it foreshadows a free four-year college plan. I’ll take the risk because the reward could be so much better.