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Free Community College Education-What's the Cost?


February 6, 2015

President Obama recently proposed that a community college education should be free for all Americans in his State of the Union Address.   That's right, no tuition!  Billed as a way to get more low-income high school graduates into college, a free community college education has met with strong skepticism from many higher education leaders and I happen to be one of them. 

First, it is hard to know just how many additional students would take advantage of a free community college education who had not already already thought of it.  After all, there are already millions of students attending community colleges across the United States because it is so inexpensive in comparison to all other forms of higher education-public and private  four-year colleges and universities and propriety institutions.  It is already a very inexpensive alternative for those who do not want to attend a four-year institution or at least complete their associate's degree first.

Second, community colleges  have attrition rates that are considerably higher than their four-year counterparts and the highest loan defaults rates of any higher education sectorI believe allowing students to attend community colleges at no cost will only increase what are already poor performance indicators related to completion rates.  It may even reinforce financial irresponsibility.   Students are far more likely to achieve academic success and demonstrate responsibility if they have to contribute something to their education.  They need to have "some skin in the game."

Third, and perhaps, most significantly, it may undermine our four-year colleges and universities, both public and private, as even more high school graduates choose the community college for their first two years of postsecondary education.  Will free community college tuition lure many freshman and sophomores away from four-year institutions who were going to college anyway?  There has been significant reductions in state and federal funding for our public institutions within recent years, and even decreases in some forms of aid for students in both the public and private sector.   It appears that free education in the community college will only take more money out of a shrinking pot.   Free community college tuition will exacerbate what is already a challenging financial situation.

I have always been a proponent of community colleges.  They serve a much broader student population than four-year institutions, and at a very low cost.  Let's keep it that way.  Why does the government always become overly intrusive in what I believe is one of the finest higher education systems in the world?  If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant
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