‘Free’ not always the best way

Free community college.

That sounds wonderful. In these days of soaring costs of higher education, when college has become a privilege for the wealthy, the academically or athletically gifted, and those willing to go into serious debt, making it free to students and letting government pay seems like a fine plan. Lord knows we need to provide more and affordable opportunities for our high school students to continue learning and having increased career options.

Free community college is the perfect vehicle to give students a taste of higher learning and see if it’s right for them. Many have doubts about college but simply can’t afford it at any level. Free would give them the chance that could give them a brighter, better, future. The importance of education can’t be emphasized enough when it comes to earning money. It’s simply a matter of developing new skills, learning new things, that are attractive to employers.

And we all know the days of paying your way through college are long gone. No longer can a student work full or part time to pay tuition while attending college. Tuition has skyrocketed over the years while blue collar jobs that paid $10 an hour 25 years ago still pretty much pay $10 an hour. Higher learning is expensive in the U.S. and sadly, out of reach for many.

All that said, there are reasons for at least for some reservations about President Barack Obama’s new plan announced Friday, which he’ll talk about more in his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, to make community college free for students in the United States. His plan, “College Promise,” is named after “Tennessee Promise,” the state which has a successful free community college program. The federal government would pay $60 billion of the $80 billion price tag, and the states would fund the other $20 billion over 10 years.

w Let’s start with the money. Even for our government, with its growing debt, $60 billion isn’t exactly chump change. Yet more debt.

w Government doing for residents what they can do for themselves if they plan well and work hard. Some will argue the more the government does for people, the lazier they get.

w Then, there’s the general thought that when something is free, the incentive isn’t there to work hard. In fact, one could argue if it’s free, there are many who will gladly accept it, but not appreciate it and therefore, do poorly in college. We should note, however, that the program does require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend classes at least half time.

w And income qualifications are not part of this plan. Regardless of family income, free community college would be offered to all students. It seems like this program should be designed for students who can’t afford college, rather than allowing those who can get a free ride they don’t need. Along that line, might there be an exodus of students fleeing universities to free community college? Say “free” and people generally come running. The idea seems to be, integrating the wealthy with the middle- and lower-income students, and closing the great divide between rich and poor.

While our president’s free community college has flaws, it is a step in the right direction of making college affordable for all who want to attend. Right now, it’s not. According to some reports, the average cost of community college is about $3,300 a year. It’s much higher, try around $10,000, for four-year universities and in the $30,00 range at private colleges. College shouldn’t be a place only for those with money. It can’t just be for children from wealthy families. Those with limited or little funds, but with the will and desire, should have that opportunity.

So, while this country does need to figure out how to increase routes toward higher education, a blanket “free” pass for two years at the community college level doesn’t seem like the correct answer. College is difficult. Free won’t change that. Some reports state that about 80 percent of first-time community college students expect to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 12 percent actually do so within six years. We suggest students be financially responsible in some form, perhaps 20 percent of the cost, which should be doable. An investment of their own money would increase commitment to seeing it through and bolster the odds of earning a coveted degree.

Let’s keep the conversation going on the affordability and accessibility of higher education. But let’s not lecture too long. With the future of millions of students at stake, and really this country, action is needed to open more avenues to college.


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