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The Cost of "Free" Community College

A few months ago President Obama announced his hope that “two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.” Since then, various cities around the country have begun to implement programs that follow the president’s vision.

On June 23, the District of Columbia City Council held a hearing on Bill 21-55, the proposed Community College for All Scholarship Amendment Act of 2015. The city council writes:

The stated purpose of Bill 21-55 is to establish a scholarship program to provide free tuition and the cost of mandatory fees to students enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia Community College, and to require the University of the District of Columbia Community College to develop, adopt, and implement the scholarship program.

Students who receive the scholarship would be required to maintain a minimum GPA and participate in community service.

Councilman Orange, one of the members who introduced the bill, gave an opening statement at the hearing. He argued that the scholarship is “not a handout, it is an investment” to an enthusiastic crowd which seemed to be in unanimous support of the new legislation and President Obama’s proposal for universal free community college, without any explanation for how we will pay for it. Sorry, Mr. Orange, but free community college is a handout, and an extremely unnecessary one which will not have any positive return for the community.

Free community college, despite its outward appearance, is not about access to education and will not create a more educated society. In today’s world, information is everywhere; there is more knowledge at our fingertips than we could ever hope to absorb. Anybody who wants to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake can do so by taking free classes online (check out classes of all levels on Khan Academy) or going to the library. These resources are free and readily available. The only thing that free community college would do is grow credentialism and promote regulation.

Despite what President Obama and the councilmen for the District of Columbia may promise, sending more people to college will not create more jobs. There will be the same number of jobs and the same positions open; all that will change is the level of education required to fill these positions. In the end, free community college will turn out more people overqualified for the jobs they are working.

Free community college will effectively mandate that students waste two years earning the degree which will prove they have the skills they entered with. This serves to extend adolescence and postpone responsibility that accompanies entering the workforce, all under the false promise of a job waiting on the other end.

The primary reason Democrats promote free community college is because they want anybody, regardless of socioeconomic status, to be able to attend college if they want to. However, this is completely founded in the misconception that money is a barrier to lower class individuals who are qualified and wish to further their educations.

At the hearing, it was claimed that students are turning to community college because they cannot afford a four year institution, and because tuition at four year institutions is growing faster than inflation. In reality, the reason that four year colleges and universities are raising their tuitions is to help pay for the high percentages of students who receive financial aid.

Today, it is standard for schools to meet 100 percent of a family’s demonstrated need to ensure that tuition is not a hindrance to attendance. The University of Virginia says that approximately 34% of students receive financial aid. I personally receive financial aid from a private institution, along with about half of the student body. Admissions are typically need-blind to ensure that the ability to pay full price does not affect a student’s chances of being accepted. In addition to grants from institutions themselves, students can apply for need-based financial aid from the federal government by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Finally, the QuestBridge program connects high-achieving, low-income students with top colleges and universities and the students receive full scholarships.

The real problem activists should be focusing on is publicity surrounding these opportunities; students should know what options are available to them. One of the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing testified that staggering numbers of students who are qualified to receive financial aid and would benefit greatly from financial assistance don’t even fill out the FAFSA. Many low-income students simply assume they will be unable to afford college, and they do not have anybody to explain to them how they can access the funds necessary to further their education.

Colleges and universities are also able to continually raise tuition because of the growing importance of getting a higher education. If jobs mandate college degrees, students have no choice but to attend college, and institutions are able to attach any price tag. With increased demand, comes higher prices. President Obama has made this cycle worse by offering student loans with low interest rates, and further increasing the demand for a higher education. And, once again, this is all predicated on the false understanding that college is the best choice for every student.

Finally, we simply cannot afford free community college. Of course, nothing is free. With an ever-growing national debt, we need to be cutting spending, not developing new programs. This will hit the American taxpayer hard. In fact, young people who choose to enter the workforce as opposed to going to college, will end up paying heightened taxes to foot the bill for the free education of others.

Thankfully, there is still time to stop the spread of free community college through the United States. The District of Columbia City Council currently has posted:

written statements are encouraged and will be made a part of the official record. Written statements should be submitted to the Committee of the Whole, Council of the District of Columbia, Suite 410 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004. The record will close at 5:00 p.m. on July 7, 2015.

I encourage you to submit a statement that points out the problems with free community college!