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Why tuition-free community college is a bad idea

The tuition-free notion diverts revenue otherwise dedicated to institutional growth and innovation.
University Business, May 2015

In 2015, many college-bound Americans will have some public higher learning or post-secondary education experience at the 1,132 community, technical, municipal, and county colleges across the Nation. In fact, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 7.7 million Americans are already enrolled in Community Colleges.

By now, everyone has heard about the President’s call for tuition-free Community Colleges. Unfortunately, the White House has created a perception in the Court of Public Opinion that Community Colleges are cost-free. The fact of the matter is that tuition free Community Colleges will not likely receive increased state appropriations to support the predicted wave of students coming through the floodgates. Indeed, the tuition-free notion actually diverts revenue otherwise dedicated to institutional growth and innovation.

Further and significantly, tuition-free change agents have yet to backfill significant fee-based revenue streamsthereby increasing future dependence on still higher fees. For the typical family, these fees can be especially burdensome when added to other out of pocket student costs for books, instructional materials, and student activities. Community College cheerleaders seem unaware that this covenant can also undercut employer tuition reimbursement and contract trainingkey revenue streams when Community Colleges are truly serving their workforce development mission.

Behind the scenes, higher ed insiders reckon that government tuition-free investment would be better spent in strengthening current Community College programs and, importantly, getting students college ready. This more strategic investment can actually improve aspiration, persistence, and completion rates by incentivizing institutional and individual student academic performancerather than spreading free tuition resources like peanut butter. In the near future, most states will at least begin the process of sorting out their per pupil cost allowances in order to foster increased collaboration between secondary, post-secondary, and higher learning institutions.

Some high-ranking officials worry that the resources devoted to tuition-free Community College could possibly lead to privatization - i.e. self-supporting Charter Colleges. In the year ahead, watch for state legislatures to test Charter College feasibility.

Going off the record with Community College colleagues, we learned that the preponderance of these institutions want to enrich and diversify the Community College learning experience rather than dilute, diminish, and detract from their higher learning missionpromoting the likelihood that students have the tools to succeed at completing their respective college learning goals.

Most higher ed insiders believe that this loss of revenue is better spent on creating new accelerated degree and certificate programs for the betterment of students, businesses, and the larger regional communities these Colleges uniquely serve. Embedded in this accelerated completion conversation are dual enrollment models for Early College programmingwhich provide high school students with opportunities to get a head start on credit-earning college coursework.

As State, County, Municipal, and Federal governments evaluate the full spectrum of affordability options, they may need to see more Community College students completing their courses and programs, with relevant workforce skills, in less time. Already several states are experimenting with tuition rebates and deferrals based on time of completion. At the end of the day, current and future Community College students and local area businesses deserve a better deal because there are no free luncheseven in public higher education.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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