Free Community College Tuition is Not the Answer

What does $1,400 buy nowadays? One year of cell phone service with T-Mobile, one year of television with DirecTV, or one year’s tuition at a California community college—for 60% of students, that is. The other 40% pay no tuition.

Which is why the chorus of support for free community college tuition as proposed by President Obama in last month’s State of the Union address makes one pause.

It is one of those proposals that on the face of it sounds opposition-proof, a people-pleasing idea that would affect many: four out of every ten students attend a community college. The percentage is higher among Glendale students. But the President’s plan is for something that is not really needed.

Community college tuition is not the number one obstacle for most students. States with much higher tuition than California’s actually have higher completion rates.

Sure, some students have to work to pay for living expenses and are unable to attend college full-time, precluding them from finishing their college studies.

However, many attending community college are not stellar students.

Community colleges used to be the domain of those students whose income would not allow entrance to a state university campus.   After attending a junior college for two years, they would transfer to a 4-year institution to finish their degree.

Today, barely ten percent of community college students finish a bachelor’s degree within six years based on a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. They struggled in high school and now need remedial coursework. Their past academic record of poor grades and easy classes did not meet the prerequisites of the state university system.

The solution isn’t to keep pushing these unprepared people into college. A kid who doesn’t fit the mold of a successful student—good grades, sits and listens attentively, does homework—doesn’t suddenly succeed by continuing assembly line-like in that traditional, passive environment.

Recall the old days when high schools provided viable vocational education alternatives for students skilled in other ways than book learning?

True, a person earns more money with a college degree than without one. However, not all jobs require them.

So having the federal government pay 75% and states the remaining 25% of the annual $6 billion needed to fund Obama’s project is not a smart investment.

The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) goes beyond paying for tuition, providing textbooks, subway passes, and closely monitored individualized counseling.

No wonder that the ASAP has worked so far, with the disadvantaged students’ graduation rate nearly doubling, but costing 63% more than students not in the program, as reported by the nonprofit group MDRC.

Free tuition may help out a bit, but there is no funding in the President’s plan for the support services that have made ASAP successful.   If there were, the allocation would rise astronomically.

At the very least, any tuition-free proposal should ask something of its recipients. How about having students perform community service projects during their high school career in exchange for tuition? Tuition-free should not mean responsibility-free.

There is nothing wrong by having individuals make sacrifices in order to achieve goals. That is what makes attaining the goal so worthwhile. Giving people money doesn’t solve their problems. Just look at the lives of lotto winners.

Focus should be on rethinking the role of high school that still accelerates the notion that all must attend college. Of course, that is a much more complex problem to solve than simply providing people free tuition.

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