It's election season, meaning politicians promising pie in the sky with somebody else's dough.  The flavor of this season appears to be universal college, brought to you by the same people who pretended to deliver universal health care.  The provision problem differs, though, in that a collegian is not the passive beneficiary of a procedure or an inoculation.  Here's Tyler Cowen's version of There's Distressed Material Enrolling.
A more pressing issue is that community college is already close to de facto free for lower-income individuals, if they piece grants and aid together.   Yet the completion rate at these colleges is at best approaching thirty-eight percent.   The real problems come before college, and encouraging more people to attend four-year colleges is unlikely to do much good.   In any case, here is further evidence that higher subsidies to community college attendance very often do not lead to more actual education.   The same or worse is likely to hold for state universities.
Then there's the possible regressive transfer inherent in investing in human capital that's likely to yield its owner higher returns.
It could be the goal is not “college for more people” but simply to redistribute income to students who otherwise would have debt burdens.   But they, with their above average human capital, are not the most deserving recipients of additional redistribution.   Might a cynic wonder if this is simply a way to reward a constituency which often votes Democratic?   Or a way to make the Republican Congress look like meanies?
Why not, that con-job has worked before. But without operational support (here's Dean Dad raising a related point) it's not going to end well.
The end result of the plan would be price controls on tuition, even though the plan itself does not stipulate that.   There simply isn’t the political constituency to support an extra federal $350 billion for higher education (over ten years), plus the state kick-ins which are supposed to follow.   The federal money will sooner or later dwindle, while the tuition restrictions will stick.   In the longer run, this isn’t even a net subsidy to higher education.   In the short run higher ed quality will go down, and in the longer run the move away from tuition support will imply more fiscal starvation for these institutions rather than less.
Not that conditions are that great now.  Not that the current crop of incoming students is that great anyway.
To knowingly push unprepared students into college only leads to frustration for students and instructors alike. It is not just critical thinking that is sorely lacking. It is intellectual curiosity that is absent in most college campuses where I teach. Yet, this intellectual curiosity is a key ingredient that "sparks science, art, all kinds of innovation." What, then, does this portend for our country?
We have much to look forward to.

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