Why ‘Free’ Community College Is a Bad Idea

POLITICS & POLICY
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Making stuff free is an old tactic for politicians seeking popularity.  The ancient Romans gave people free bread and circuses. Now, Democrats in Congress want to make community college free. (I don’t think I need to add that any time scarce resources are used, the thing can’t really be “free” owing to the opportunity costs.)

In today’s Martin Center article, Preston Cooper of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity takes a look at the push to make community-college attendance “free.” In his view, it would be a costly mistake.

He writes, “The obsession with a zero sticker price for community college is odd, given that community colleges are already one of the most affordable sectors of America’s higher-education system. Average tuition is less than $4,000 per year, and after existing financial aid is applied, the typical student pays no tuition at all.”

With their typical macro thinking, the Democrats look upon “community college” as an undifferentiated whole, one that confers earning benefits on graduates. So, let’s just put more students through, thus helping them and boosting the economy!

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The trouble, Cooper points out, is that while some community-college programs do deliver valuable training, many leave grads earning little or no more than high-school graduates. He observes, “Congressional Democrats’ plan for free community college simply offers a blanket federal subsidy with little regard for quality differences between institutions and programs. The scheme might improve access to community college—but if so many students fail to graduate or realize economic gains from their education, what is broader access really worth?”

Instead of that blanket federal subsidy, Cooper advocates federal subsidies for community colleges to the extent that their graduates earn more than $45,000 per year. While that idea is better than the “free for all” proposed by the Democrats, I’m not a fan. I think that where CC grads succeed, it’s as much due to their own efforts as that of the school. Ladling more federal money into CC’s would not necessarily lead to more success stories. It would just allow administrators to spend more.

Here is Cooper’s conclusion: “If Congressional Democrats are determined to lavish over $100 billion on America’s community colleges, they can surely find a better way to spend that money than free tuition with no strings attached.”

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