Why ‘Free’ Community College is a Bad Idea


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Making things free is an old tactic for popularity-seeking politicians. The ancient Romans gave people free bread and circuses. Now Congressional Democrats want to make community colleges free. (I don’t think I need to add that whenever scarce resources are used, the thing can’t really be “free” due to opportunity costs.)

In today’s article from the Martin Center, Preston Cooper of the Equal Opportunities Research Foundation examines efforts to make community college attendance “free”. In his opinion, that would be a costly mistake.

He writes: “The obsession with a zero price for community colleges is strange, given that community colleges are already one of the most affordable areas of the American higher education system. Average tuition fees are less than $ 4,000 per year, and after applying for existing financial aid, the typical student pays no tuition fees.

With their typical macro thinking, Democrats view the “community college” as an undifferentiated whole, which confers benefits on graduates. So let’s get more students through, helping them and boosting the economy!

The problem, Cooper points out, is that while some community college programs provide valuable training, many graduates leave graduates earning little or no more than high school graduates. He observes, “The Congressional Democrats’ plan for a free community college simply offers a block federal grant regardless of the differences in quality between institutions and programs. The program could improve access to community college, but if so many students don’t graduate or realize economic gains from their education, what is more access really worth? “

Instead of this block federal grant, Cooper advocates federal grants for community colleges to the extent that their graduates earn more than $ 45,000 per year. While this idea is better than the “free for all” offered by Democrats, I’m not a fan. I think where CC graduates are successful is as much through their own efforts as through those of the school. Injecting more federal money into CCs would not necessarily lead to more success. It would just allow administrators to spend more.

Here is Cooper’s conclusion: “If Congressional Democrats are determined to spend more than $ 100 billion on US community colleges, surely they can find a better way to spend that money than unconditional free tuition.

George Leef is the Editorial Content Director of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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