“Free” Community College Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Students

In response to a growing student debt problem, some policymakers have proposed making community college free at the point of delivery, financed entirely by taxpayers. President Obama has suggested making “two years of college…as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

Yet such proposals are problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is subjecting community colleges, considered by many today to be an affordable option, to the same types of subsidies-induced inflation endemic at four-year institutions. Taxpayer-financed “free” community college also prefers the community college sector over for-profit and trade schools, and creates potential opportunity costs for those students who might have been better served by immediately entering the workforce. Further, community colleges suffer from generally poor academic performance, with few students graduating within 150 percent of program time. Finally, low-income students already have access to federal Pell Grants, which can cover the bulk of community college tuition.

Indeed, the idea of “free” community college itself is misleading, as the cost of education for these students would not disappear. Rather, because the American taxpayer would pick up the tab entirely for a community college system that is universally available—just as the K–12 system is today—such proposals are more likely to look like extended high school than a rigorous higher education experience.

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