“Free” community college is a bad idea.

tjc campus

Listen To You Tell Me Texas Friday 1/16/15


On January 9 in front of an audience at a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee, President Obama said,

“I’m announcing an ambitious new plan to bring down the cost of community college tuition in America.”

There was then a long pause for dramatic effect before he went on to say,

“I want to bring it down to zero.”

I am a big fan of community and junior colleges. A prime example is right here – Tyler Junior College – which has put generations of young men and women from East Texas on the road to successful lives.

But unlike President Obama, I’ll bet that TJC president Dr. Mike Metke knows the difference between the price of something and the cost of something. A bunch of money transferred from taxpayers to TJC can bring the price of TJC down to zero from the perspective of the enrolling student. But that does not reduce the cost.

The cost is the sum of the salaries for teachers, staff and administrators together with the expenses of operating and maintaining the necessary buildings, equipment and infrastructure. The cost of those things can never be zero.

But even if you get the vocabulary straight, I can make multiple arguments against bringing the price down to zero. Space permits the presentation of two of those arguments.

First is the truth behind the expression “skin in the game.” Anything of value comes at a price and when you reduce the price to zero, you reduce its perceived value. Community college classrooms clogged with students who would not be there if it weren’t free will take time and resources – time and resources that would be better spent on students willing to make a tangible financial investment in their own education.

We already provide financial aid for kids who really need it. But free for everybody is a bad idea because it will only serve as a devaluation of the currency that, for now at least, still attaches to a community college education.

My second argument derives from the disheartening history of the federal government’s involvement in education. That history makes clear that when the federal government begins paying the tuition of every single student at TJC, Dr. Metke and the TJC board will become de facto vassals of the Department of Education.

The marvelous job that TJC has done in creating curricula that meet the demands of employers in this part of the world – and the similar job that community colleges do all across the country – will be swept aside by the inevitable one-size-fits-everybody mandates that have done so much damage to America’s public schools. What part of the thousands of dysfunctional public schools in the U.S. would you want to emulate at TJC?

What I cannot understand is this. How can President Obama and the members of his administration – possessed every one of degrees from prestige universities – be so ignorant of the basic economics of argument number one and so blind to the history behind argument number two?

My question is not rhetorical. I really can’t understand it.

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Paul Gleiser

Paul L. Gleiser is president of ATW Media, LLC, licensee of radio stations KTBB 97.5 FM/AM600, 92.1 The TEAM FM in Tyler-Longview, Texas.

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7 Responses

  1. pk says:

    Many States have a policy of “free” college.
    If what you say is true about the employees of TJC, there must be a way to circumvent the ramification of becoming Federal employees.

    To many the cost of college is so astronomical that they lose heart before the beginning.
    It is possible or no one would even go to college.

    I think that there must be a widely announced way to entice those who wish to attend offered by our State for good marks.

    Let’s do this for our Texas kids.

  2. Linda E. Montrose says:

    There is one certainty and that is there are NO FREE LUNCHES…NO FREE RIDES and anyone believing there is, is a fool. The democrat party has made a living “doing things for kids” and where has it got us? We have more stupid “educated” children in our history because the democrats have been dumbing down education for decades! Just another way of bringing down America, provide everything “free”. Nothing is free, never has been and never will be! Someone down the line PAYS!

  3. There were probably nay-sayers way-back-when technology/productivity/societal needs and opportunities nudged K-through-8 to K-through-12. Who wants to spend a working lifetime working a foot press?

    As for who-pays-for-it, do the math:

    Over the course of their careers, community college grads will earn $259,000 more than high school grads; and pay $67,000 more in taxes on that income. That’s 782% return on taxpayers’ investment on $7600 per student for (TWO years of) community college.

    • Paul Gleiser says:

      Your argument is painfully simplistic.

      Yes, it is absolutely true that community college grads earn more in a lifetime than high school grads. It is equally true that some study that was conducted revealed that households that are filled with books generally boast a higher household income than households that are devoid of books. But that doesn’t mean that you can bring a lower-income household to parity by simply delivering a truckload of books.

      The reason that community college grads do better is because they had the initiative and the commitment to put themselves in school in the first place. With their own “skin in the game” they stayed to see it through. Making it “free” kills the commitment. It will serve only to fill schools full of kids who are there only because it is “free.”

      Staying with books as illustration: I read the books that I buy. I almost never read the books that are given to me for free.

      As I clearly said in the piece, we already offer financial aid for students who truly don’t have the means to pay for school themselves. It’s making it “free” for everybody that constitutes the bad idea. It’s one more entitlement piled upon the other entitlements that are bankrupting the country while killing initiative for millions of people who are otherwise capable of making their own way in the world.

      Then there’s the inescapable fact, as pointed out in the piece, that when the government becomes the single biggest source of revenue for every community college in the country, it will amount to a federal takeover. Show me one thing that the federal government does well. The federal intrusion into local school districts has been an unmitigated disaster. Why would you want to repeat that mistake with America’s junior and community colleges?

  4. Those R.O.I. numbers are a “trickle-down” that actually works!

  5. R. Eagleman says:

    “Free” community college tuition will yield the same results as the “free” or “almost free” mortgage loans to unqualified persons in order to give them the pride of home ownership. They achieved neither the pride of actually earning ownership of the home, nor a home that they could afford. Many of these homes were abandoned, and once again, the taxpayers were left to finance yet another Socialist experiment. There is not a single student in the U.S. who works hard and earns good grades that will be denied a scholarship or some other affordable way to attend a junior or 4 year college. When people get something for nothing, it is usually worth exactly what they paid for it!

  6. C M Soloman says:

    This is not a question of educational economics: the cost and benefits of free, or not to be free, education. It is purely a scheme for the Federal government and the self appointed autocratic Leftist elites to control the CONTENT of the education: the curriculum. This is persuasion by the “carrot and the stick” approach. You either teach our Marxist ideology or you don’t get our (federal) dollars. It is no more complicated than that.

    These elites don’t care about results unless it furthers their cause of Left-wing domination of education in this country. Obama and his “highly” educated administration only want dictatorial control over ALL education in order to make the Left-wing Democrat Party a permanent autocratic force at every level of government and every day life. They are only following their own educational training that had already been corrupted.

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