COMMENTARY | For today’s high school students, this bit of news may perk you up: According to the Associated Press, multiple states are mulling the idea of free community college tuition, which would allow high school graduates to get an associate’s degree, or complete two years toward a bachelor’s degree, for zero tuition money down. The move is intended to make those states more attractive to investors and entrepreneurs by boosting the number of well-educated potential employees. In the race to increase human capital, many politicians consider free community college tuition a worthwhile investment.
While the intentions are good, there are some looming complications that state legislatures would be smart to consider:
First of all, free tuition will likely cause tremendous stress and strain to existing community college infrastructures by increasing demand. Schools with be swamped with applications and will face a dilemma: Accept everyone and risk overcrowding the college and its facilities, or become more selective and run counter to the notion that community colleges provide open admission? Even in that case, many more admissions staff would have to be hired to sift through all the new applications.
Either way, offering free tuition will mean community colleges run up a bigger bill for taxpayers. Legislators need to be aware that they would not be paying today’s sticker price for community college education, but rather a larger figure.
Secondly, providing free tuition is a risky investment at best. How many of the new community college students will do well by the state’s investment in them? Realistically, many will be unprepared for college-level rigor and will flunk out, just like occurs today. And many of the new community college students, speaking frankly, will be the ones who had not anticipated attending prior to zero tuition laws…and are very likely to be less academically prepared. Failure rates will be higher after zero tuition is implemented as more underprepared students flock to community colleges.
Have legislators anticipated that reality?
Third, things change drastically when tuition is free and paid by the state. Critics have already opined that students with less “skin in the game,” meaning less of their own financial liability, will likely be less motivated to perform. Why worry about getting through college quickly if the state is paying? After all, it’s free! Even worse, now college failures become a state issue. No longer are students who fail only harming themselves…they are harming the state as well.
This will shift the burden of college failures from the failing students to the instructors. Just like in K-12 public school, teachers will be under the gun to keep failure rates artificially low to keep the state happy. Instead of college instructors being able to say “well, he blew his investment in college,” the state will point at college instructors who give failing grades and say “hey, you’re wrecking our investment in his college.” Students will catch on and have even less incentive to perform, knowing the state wants them all to pass.
Finally, academic freedom and rigor will be watered-down and community college will become the new high school. In an effort to curb failure rates and keep costs under control, community colleges will quickly be “K-12ed” by states to provide greater oversight and keep students on tighter tracks. Letting students “branch out” and take classes outside their degree plans will be frowned upon because it costs the state extra dollars. To make sure colleges are “performing” they will be subjected to increasingly widespread batteries of standardized testing. Eventually, community college will simply become grades 13 and 14 of high school.
Ultimately, poor students will continue to suffer in the human capital game as employers, now seeing a community college degree as the new high school diploma, will simply demand more education. Now only a true bachelor’s degree will suffice. Education inflation will simply raise the stakes for everyone and continue to harm those who cannot afford as much formal schooling.
Free community college tuition is not the answer to our educational woes. Only when we increase academic rigor by allowing teachers to teach and hold underperforming students accountable, by allowing them to fail, will we return the value to a diploma.