Six years ago, President Barack Obama announced a proposal to provide “free” tuition for 9 million community college students. It was more concept than concrete plan. The details weren’t finalized, but the price tag was projected to be $60 billion over 10 years.
Obama’s proposal languished during the last two years of his administration before suffering a quiet death during the four years of President Donald Trump’s term.
The idea has been resurrected as part of President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, which includes $109 billion over 10 years to make community colleges “tuition-free.” Eleven billion dollars per year sounds like a lot of money. But for perspective, Americans spend $100 billion per year on their pets.
I always use quotation marks around the word “free” whenever it’s connected to tuition. “Free” is as misleading as “defund” in the phrase “defund the police.” Neither is accurate, and both provide a low-hanging opportunity for attacks by opponents.
“Tuition-free” doesn’t mean no tuition; it merely invokes the question of who pays the tuition at public institutions, the students or the public.
It’s not complicated. For several decades the cost of college has been increasingly pushed onto the students. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for public colleges and universities decreased by $6.6 billion (adjusted for inflation) between 2008 and 2018.
Public educational institutions have had to respond with tuition increases. Achieving a college education has become staggeringly more difficult, and more students graduate with overwhelming loads of debt.
An analysis of the financial implications of Biden’s proposal is beyond the scope of this column. Besides, I suspect that this issue is as much philosophical as fiscal. Objectors to “tuition-free” community college often depend on subjective arguments. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, says, “College shouldn’t be free … because students with skin in the game take their studies more seriously,” as if this dubious argument has a particular relevance for community college students.
Objectors often criticize community college students for low rates of degree completion. Rep. Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, says, “Dumping money into community colleges, where students have the lowest odds of completing their program within six years, is a recipe for disaster.”
But this objection is circular. Tuition support is precisely for the purpose of helping students complete their degrees.
Furthermore, the argument that the cost of college should be pushed onto the students ignores the public good that follows when more citizens are better educated. They become much more productive and much more likely to be assets to our society rather than liabilities.
That’s why I, childless, don’t object to paying taxes so that your children can go to school.
Unfortunately, the resistance to “free” tuition often embodies the not-always-subtle suggestion that community college students are unprepared and unmotivated. I take a more sanguine perspective, based on teaching 7,500 of them during 29 years as an English professor at Del Mar College, a large community college in Corpus Christi, Texas.
I’ve taught elsewhere, including several years at an expensive private liberal arts university. But I herewith assert that the best of my community college students would have no trouble competing with the younger, whiter, richer students at the university.
And my weakest students? Many of them were smart, capable, committed and hardworking, as well, but they arrived at my college with the very deficits that community colleges are designed to remedy. The inadequacy of community college students is largely a pernicious canard.
Finally, objectors to Biden’s proposal for “free” tuition fail to take into account the financial challenge of achieving a college education. Besides their tuition, books and fees, college students pay an enormous price in time, energy and lost wages that they might have earned had they not been in school. Even if tuition is “free,” students will not be freeloading.
We always find ways to pay for the things we value, especially if the expenditure will eventually be repaid in societal benefits. We could make no better investment in our national human potential than “free” tuition.