President Barack Obama came to Indiana last week to push his plan for two years of “free” community college.
Much of the discussion so far about the president’s plan has focused on the use of the word “free” – more on that in a moment – but Hoosier political leaders took a different tack. In opposing Obama, they dusted off some old states’ rights arguments.
“I think it’s the last thing the federal government ought to be getting involved in,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “It’s a state issue; and of course we have a variety of opportunities and encouragements for folks who want to improve their education.”
Indiana Sen. David Long, R- Fort Wayne, sounded a similar theme.
Funds for higher education “should come from the state and not the federal government,” Long said. “The state needs to control its own laws and regulations and rules and decide what’s best for Hoosiers. We don’t need the federal government telling us how to do that anymore than they already are.”
This really isn’t surprising coming from legislative leaders in a state that initially rejected federal health care funds – leaving hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers uncovered in the process – and then desperately looked for a face-saving way to do an about-face. HIP, HIP, hooray.
It’s also the same state that brushed aside federal funding for pre-K education in the interest of preserving the state’s autonomy. It’s good to know that we’re willing to sacrifice three-year-olds and four-year-olds for the cause.
The state’s leaders take their inspiration from those earlier advocates for states’ rights in the American South. The realization that Southern leaders’ devotion to states’ rights and the South’s persistent status as the poorest region of America during the century in which the United States emerged as the world’s greatest economic powerhouse might have been linked seems not to have occurred to Indiana’s chieftains.
Nor does the fact that, of the states surrounding us, Indiana has the lowest average annual household income except for Kentucky – and the folks in the Bluegrass state are gaining on us – seem to have penetrated with our leaders.
The proposition that Indiana alone can prevail against the rest of the world could be an expensive experiment for the state – and a costly lesson for the people who live here.
That brings us to the president’s “free” community college plan.
Obama is wrong to call it “free.” It won’t even be cheap. It will be expensive.
But that’s really the wrong question to ask about it.
One of the illusions politicians of both parties like to try to sell is that decisions can be made without consequences and choices without costs.
They like to say services can be provided without taxes. That tax cuts can come without cutting services or running up deficits. Or that the private sector can deliver government services more efficiently than the public sector without resorting to certain corporate practices – i.e., writing off losses and attempting to evade oversight.
All of this might be forgivable – just more examples of politicians being politicians – if our leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, didn’t come so close to selling us the notion that we can have growth without investment.
That we can get something for nothing.
No rational person, conservative, liberal or moderate, believes that.
Most of us know that the important question isn’t whether something has a cost – because everything has some kind of cost – but whether the benefit justifies that cost.
That, of course, is the question we should be asking about Obama’s plan: Is it worth the investment?
The world soon will enter into a particularly Darwinian era in economic history. Economists and demographers say developed countries will face a severe labor shortage within 15 years. The nations that can provide skilled workers – not just technicians, but critical thinkers and problem-solvers – will prosper.
So will their citizens.
Those countries that do not provide those workers will struggle to survive.
So will their citizens.
The real question with the president’s plan for community colleges is whether it brings us closer to being ready to meet this coming challenge.
If it does, the president’s plan probably is worth the money it costs. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.
Either way, we won’t get something for nothing.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.