Northam Proposes Another $145 Million Giveaway

by James A, Bacon

The spending avalanche keeps building. Governor Ralph Northam now is proposing to spend $145 million in the next two-year budget to make tuition-free community college available to “low- and middle-income” students who pursue jobs in high-demand fields.

The Governor’s “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) program would cover tuition, fees and books.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to get a good education and a good job, no matter who you are or how much money you have,” Northam said in a statement. “This is an investment in equity and our economy — by helping Virginians get the skills they need, we’re building a world-class workforce while ensuring all Virginians can support themselves, their families, and their communities.”

There is so much sloppy thinking in this proposal that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I’ll try….

Let’s start with a couple of factual statements that actually are true. (1) As the governor observes, there are “high demand” occupations where jobs are going unfilled. (2) Virginians who earn credentials in these high-demand occupations can increase their wages — by 60%, according to the administration. And (3) enrollment in community colleges has declined over the past several years.

But it does not necessarily follow that the G3 program — which will make grants in amounts up to $1,000 per semester for students with household income less than four times the poverty level, or roughly $100,000 per year — addresses a problem that needs addressing.

Secretary of Education Atif Qarni stated the critical assumption underpinning the logic behind the program: “With rising tuition costs, many Virginians are opting out of higher education.”

It is very true that rising tuition, fees, and other costs are making four-year colleges increasingly unaffordable. But Virginia’s community colleges have done a far superior job of holding down costs. According to College Navigator, the in-state tuition charged to attend J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in the Richmond region — pretty representative for Virginia’s community colleges as a whole — was $4,998 in for the 2018-19 academic year; books and supplies cost an additional $1,600. That’s a total of $13,200 for a two-year stint of full-time studies (summers off)  to earn an Associate’s degree.

Students attending J. Sarge received $9.5 million in Pell grants (free money), $6.9 million in federal student loans, and $13.5 million in other grant or scholarship aid. The average amount received per recipient in 2017-18:

Grant or scholarship aid — $3,262
Pell grants — $3,051
Federal student loans — $5,762

Those numbers suggest that most of the 66% of J. Sarge students who need financial aid are getting plenty of it, especially when you consider that only 28% of them are attending full time. If finances are a significant barrier to attending community college, it is far from obvious from these numbers. The Northam administration has offered no other data to justify the claim that finances are a barrier to community college attendance.

Northam does say, however, “there are financial barriers beyond tuition and fees that disproportionately affect our lowest-income students. … When you’re struggling to pay for the basic costs of life, such as a roof over your head, child care, transportation — the cost of tuition can seem far out of reach.”

What happened to food stamps? What happened to Earned Income Tax Credits? What happened to housing subsidies? What happened to the Child Care Subsidy program which “provides financial assistance to eligible families to help pay for the cost of child care so they can work or attend education or training programs”?

Perhaps there are a few students who fall between the cracks, and the combination of grants, loans and government poverty programs don’t cover all the costs. How many such students are there? What data does the administration present that $145 million ($72.5 million a year) is tailored to the scope of the problem, and how will the funds be targeted to those who fall between the cracks? In that context, upon what conceivable grounds could it be said that a student from a household with an income of up to $100,000, with all the loan and scholarship money already available, suffers a financial barrier to attending community college?

A related question: Have we as a society totally jettisoned the idea that students should expend some effort to pay for their own education? Have we abandoned the insight that every student not only “deserves to get a good education,” as Northam puts it, but should put some of their own skin in the game? Or are middle-class families making more than $100,000 a year the only ones required to put skin in the game?

One last observation: A major reason, perhaps the reason, that community college enrollment has declined over the past 10 years is that job opportunities have improved. Instead of earning new credentials at school, tens of thousands of Virginians have opted to work, perhaps gaining on-the-job training along the way. Community college enrollment always surges during recessions and recedes during economic expansions. Declining enrollment by itself constitutes no proof that finances are a barrier.

Bacon’s bottom line: Governor Northam (1) provides no evidence that finances are a barrier to a community college degree, (2) provides no evidence that handing out $72.5 million more a year will increase enrollment, (3) provides no explanation of where he came up with that particular sum, and (4) provides no explanation of why students from households earning four times the federal poverty level need financial assistance. This initiative looks like a pure pander — free money for people who may or may not need it. What’s not to like… unless you’re a taxpayer?

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16 responses to “Northam Proposes Another $145 Million Giveaway”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    What I do not support is the “many silos” nature of education (and for that matter other entitlements) funding in addition to JABs complaint that the basis for doing it as well as how effectiveness is measured.

    So the Dems more often than not seldom are opposed to yet another “benefit” to “help” someone in need.

    But the GOP has it’s own penny-wise/pound-foolish approach which is akin to a whack-a-mole tax process where they oppose even DIFFERENT spending to supplant other spending. They want the spending killed – period – no re-directing!

    But anyone who thinks that low-income kids have just as equal chance to higher ed is either dreaming or just plain willfully blind.

    I DO have concerns about such kids getting a free ticket to College and not academically or mentally prepared for it and see a lot of potential failure unless these kids are mandatory tested for basic academics and forced to enroll in basic remedial reading/language/math as a condition of acceptance.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Didn’t Lyndon Johnson promise an end to poverty way back in the 1960s? I agree with Larry that absent some form of testing, we will get a lot of people who are not ready for post-secondary education. Moreover, we need to test results.

    There are never any consequences for the public sector when it fails. How about subjecting program leaders (and not ordinary worker-bees) to conditions that, if their program doesn’t produce the projected results, they get fired and forfeit all of their retirement? This would push high-level career employees to become very much more accurate in their projections. We’d see a lot fewer “gee-whiz” programs that don’t pan out. We’d see a lot more estimates of marginal benefits, which, in turn, would focus spending on fewer programs that actually work.

    And YES, this should apply to Uncle Sam as well.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    NO, Johnson did NOT “promise” an end to poverty no more than VDOT promises an end to congestion or the Police promise an end to crime.

    And no.. you don’t threaten leaders with firing if they fall short. All that does is encourage folks to not do anything more than what the jobs calls for and to keep secret as much as they can.

    What you want is everyone on board with measuring and everyone on board with change if the current path is not working.

    You cannot evolve and change without the people who do the work – doing that. If you fire people and the organization ends up with a reputation of firing those who fail – you’re going to attract the worst kind of people.

    The “silo” problem is not one you can fix – at each silo – anyhow.

    They can do everything right – but it’s beyond their purview to fix and the guys/gals at the top can “fix” 6 things and fail at the 7th. You still gonna fire them for the 7th failure and then replace them with WHO when prospective replacements know they can be fired even if they do “almost” everything right?

    At the teaching level – this idea of ” don’t fail or we fire you” leads to cheating… and if you tell the principle that you’ll fire him/her if their school fails – then he/she is going to find scapegoats to blame. You need them all to work together to turn things around. There may be one or two that are not up to it but you cannot have an environment that threatens firing if there is failure. All you’re gonna get is bad employees after the word gets out.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      “This administration here and now declares unconditional war on poverty.”

      Lyndon B. Johnson

      In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958: from 17.3% in the year the Economic Opportunity Act was implemented to 11.1% in 1973. They have remained between 11 and 15.2% ever since. It is important to note, however, that the steep decline in poverty rates began in 1959, 5 years before the introduction of the war on poverty.

      The progressive Johnson’s war on poverty turned out to be nearly as effective as his war on Vietnam.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        A fine book on LBJ’s gargantuan domestic disasters is the just published Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes.

        After his early civil rights legislation, LBJ did more damage to America than any other president in 20th century, save only for Woodrow Wilson. Blackface Northam is cheap suit version of LBJ. This new book on the horrible Great Society laws is required reading for Virginians, and what their future holds.

        In addition, the awful Woodrow Wilson is a Virginia product who tried to imitate Princeton ideology, and totally rewrite the American Constitution in his own twisted and neurotic image, actions that produced equally disastrous results for America and the world. So America’s worst president of the 2oth century is also worthy of study by Virginians, particularly those with illusions about University of Virginia, along with their cheap suit version of LBJ now calling the shots in Richmond.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          For a very different perspective on Shlaes’ book that argues that it is deeply flawed see:

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        sorry, that’s just not credible DJ and TMT. Declaring a “war” on poverty or drugs or congestion or “illegals” or smoking or you name it is just hyperbole for the weak minded or those who want to use it as a cudgel against those who work against poverty but realize it will never be wiped out.

        Oh, and yes… those foolish liberals believe that efforts to reduce poverty are worthwhile as opposed to justifying no efforts because it will always be here.

        If we took a similar attitude about congestion or crime or disease then we’d just throw up our hands , right?

        what is this narrative against poverty REALLY ABOUT?

  4. djrippert Avatar

    Let’s see – you’re an adult who wants to better himself or herself. You don’t have a lot of money because you don’t have the education to get a good job. But you’re smart and you can get an associate’s degree in two years that will change all that. Cost of the degree? $13,200 according to Jim Bacon. Northam’s plan? Hand out free money. The right plan – hand out low interest loans. A $13,200 loan issued at 4% interest with 60 monthly payments costs $243 per month to repay. Shouldn’t somebody with a degree in “high demand fields” be able to make much more incremental salary per month than $243?

  5. I was at a specialty center open house with my son in Chesterfield (Matoaca, for Information Technology), and one of the seniors who was answering questions from parents explained that he is not attending college because he has already gotten a particular certification through the high school program and been offered a well-paying job in cyber security when he graduates. We heard similar stories from other students at these centers, where kids are graduating with the equivalent of an associate degree. My own brother in the late 1990s earned a two-year computer networking degree at a technical institute and is today doing pretty well for himself. Four-year college and advanced degrees may be required for certain professions, but they certainly aren’t required to make a good living. I’d be investing more into vocational programs, apprenticeships, and job training at the high school level before further subsidizing college tuition.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      …and totally agree with hemcomm. Traditional higher Ed has not evolved it’s programs with respect to how the 21st century economy has and is evolving.

      In fact, I’d argue that the process for becoming a Doctor or Dentist or other Medical professional in this country has become so expensive and time consuming that Doctors educated abroad and fully capable of getting their US credentials are taking over the profession.

      One can get an excellent education and a good job in the 21st century economy WITHOUT going into debt up to your eyeballs and the thing is – it’s your presonal responsibility to NOT blow-up your own financials in a foolish higher ed quest – no more than it’s justified to go into uber debt for anything.

      You incur debt responsibily not irresponsibly and you don’t do it just because “everyone else is also” or ” it’s the only way I can get a 4 year degree”.

      I’m just astounded at the irresponsibility of people these days on this issue. You DO have a CHOICE – and more than that – a responsibility to yourself on whether to saddle yourself with decades of debt. The are thousands/millions of people who have very good jobs that did not go into debt up to their eyeballs AND now want the govt to “help” them. Even those who say they are Conservatives are expecting the govt to “help” them.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    You make a good case, Jim, about the lack of evidence of any compelling need for this additional appropriation. It will be interesting to see the details the administration will provide to justify it.

    The article in the RTD is misleading. The headline and the first paragraph refer to “free community college”. However, later in the article, the point is made that “the state will take into account not just total income, by also how much a family can contribute toward education costs.” Furthermore, in an op-ed piece, Glenn DuBois, the community college chancellor claims “this is not a ‘free community college’…program.”

    One feature that I like is the requirement for work experience, community service, or other public service in exchange for the financial assistance.

  7. How about a simple NO to this idea…
    Taxpayers have done more than enough providing 12 free years of schooling.
    You want more,,, get out there and work for it,,, bonus.. it builds character, a strong work ethic, etc…

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think Community College is necessary in the 21st century economy. A high school degree is not enough for anything but the lowest level jobs.

      And I do believe that low-income folks are going to need help but like Dick – work experience, community service, internships, etc.

      I think we’ve gone nuts on financial aid at the 4year institutions. You speak of hard work and character and I agree and people have a responsibility to do those things instead of going into decade-long debt and our policies right now actually encourage this irresponsible attitude.

  8. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Social Security benefits are subject to the FIT, with exceptions for lower-income retirees. Why not make all government benefits taxable and have a new and high personal exemption? From pre-school to K-12 to college. To make Larry happy, tax employer-funded health care, along with Medicare and Medicaid.

    This would send signals to the public that government benefits are income and all income is taxable.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: to make Larry happy.

      just treat everyone the same on health insurance. If you don’t tax it for employer-provided – don’t tax it for market insurance either. If people who get employer-provided are guaranteed pre-existing coverage – do it for everyone. If folks who get employer-provided get it for the same premium as others regardless of health status – do it for all.

      just be fair to all.

      In terms of entitlements.

      it’s a mess.

      Unemployment benefits ARE taxed – believe it not!

      Social Security is taxed to a limited degree ONLY if you have a lot more other income – For most folks, it’s not taxed.

      And one of the biggest costs of MedicAid is paying for nursing homes for folks who own their homes – they want the State to essentially preserve their assets with taxpayer subsidies. Most folks don’t even buy long-term care because they expect the govt to pay for their care.

      In terms of entitlements , most of them like food stamps, Medicaid, Obamacare, TANF , etc – the amount you get IS based on your income and assets as it ought to be except for kids and for short term their moms.

      But for Community College – for all the low-income kids who cannot afford to go to college – we should make it easy for them to attend – we should encourage it and we should provide them with remediation for academic shortfalls – BECAUSE that is cheaper than paying a lifetime of entitlements …. primarily because they are not qualified for decent paying jobs.

      I’m totally in favor of the carrot and stick approach to providing “benefits” to anyone. No free rides. You have to earn the benefit.

      I just think it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to deny education to low income folks….. which is basically what we’ve done to many of them in K-12 in years prior. If mom/dad got a crappy education at a crappy school and the have kids – if we do not do something different than we’ve been doing – we’re going to have a permanent underclass getting taxpayer-funded benefits.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: Medicare

    keep in mind that Medicare is Part A hospital (which you paid for with your FICA taxes)

    and Medicare Part B which you did not but you are ENTITLED to buy – the same premium price regardless of your age or health but premiums go up with income.

    Each month you pay a premium of $135.50. If your income is higher than $85,000, you have to pay a higher premium. How much you make determines how much you pay, ranging from $189.60 to $460.50.

    And next year the premiums are going up –

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