Free college? That’s crazy talk.
That’s how President Obama’s idea to make community college free was greeted by many last week. It’s too costly, some Republicans said. It’s an undeserved handout. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Even some supporters described it as a “moonshot ” (by which they meant Congress will never approve it, but also that Obama has launched himself into space with this one).
But free college is not only not crazy. It’s already happening for huge numbers of students, especially right here in Washington state.
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Did you know we have a program here that offers free college to nearly half the state’s public high-school students? And it isn’t just two years of community college. It’s four years of university tuition, plus a $500 per year book stipend, all free.
It’s called the College Bound Scholarship, and though the state Legislature passed it with zero fanfare back in 2007, the ramifications of it are enormous.
It guarantees four years free at public-university rates for anyone who signs up by eighth grade and whose family income is low enough to qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. About half of the state’s public-school students are this poor ($44,000 or less for a family of four), and so are theoretically eligible to get four free years of college.
They also have to graduate from high school with at least a C average, then apply and get into a participating college. The first kids who signed up back in 2008 are now in college — 12,400 local students receiving free college educations. That number is expected to grow to more than 25,000 within a few years (equivalent to an entire University of Washington going to school tuition-free).
The tuitions are costing state taxpayers $75 million per year, a figure expected to more than double as the program grows in the next few years. Many of the students also get federal grants (the state is obligated to fill in the gap of whatever is not covered by other sources).
What’s amazing about this program is that it passed the Legislature almost unanimously, with little debate. It’s as if they didn’t all grasp the magnitude of what they were doing.
What’s also notable is how well it’s working. Not only are kids flocking to it — who doesn’t love free? — but early studies of the first few graduating classes suggest it has virtually eliminated the gap between poor and richer kids in college-attendance rates.
A state senator last month called it the “holy grail” for ending the achievement gap.
Why? The power of free. At first many families were skeptical, calling the offer of free college “too good to be true.” But apparently once they signed up it created a uniquely powerful incentive for the kids to both graduate from high school (their graduation rate was 19 percentage points higher than low-income kids not in the program) and then go on to college.
This is exactly what Obama is trying to do nationwide with the offer of free community college.
Now free obviously isn’t really free — the bill is paid by someone. But two University of Wisconsin professors have calculated that we’re already paying this bill, via a crazy quilt of grants, scholarships and tax incentives. In fact, using just the billions in federal college financial-aid programs, you could buy every kid in America two free years of college in the public system.
One of the professors noted on Friday that some conservatives, such as the GOP governor in Tennessee, where they adopted free community college last year, have pushed free college the hardest. The College Bound Scholarship here was sponsored by Democrats, but somehow our typically polarized state Senate voted for this big new entitlement program 46-0.
“Look what ya started Republicans!” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab on Twitter. “Thanks much for opening door to free community college — and Dems, the water is warm, come on in!”
Free college is going to be one of those issues like the minimum-wage movement. It may sound crazy. But it not only isn’t crazy. It’s coming.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org