A (Free) College Education for Everyone?

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Magdalen College, Oxford

You may have heard that last week President Obama announced an initiative to provide “free” community college education for qualifying students, tentatively defined as those maintaining a “C” average in school. As noted several months ago here at Conciliar Post, the status quo of the American education system needs reform, as the overall monetary and policy prioritization of K-12 education has done relatively little to effectively educate America’s youth and prepare them for their future vocations.1 Few deny that something needs to change in education, though conclusions as to just what that something is remain debated. The purposes of this article involve neither rehashing these concerns nor reacting to our President’s particular proposal—for actual details are scant at this point.2 Rather, this article considers the generalities of “free college education” for everyone, just one part of the greater “education question” that faces our nation. To these ends, I reflect on three questions concerning the cost, need, and implications of a program offering “free” community college education.

What is “free” college going to cost?

Before anything else, let us dispel with the notion of “free” anything. Nothing in life—except the love your dog has for you, the air you breathe (at least for now), and the love of Christ—is free. Somebody somewhere pays for everything, no matter what it costs you individually. The Huffington Post is reporting that this plan will cost $60 billion over ten years—though experience suggests that initial estimates for government outlays are consistently too low and that costs increase with time.3 For American taxpayers already burdened with an approximately $18,000,000,000,000 debt, another expensive federal program seems neither prudent nor wise. This in mind, I am extremely curious about where the funding for “free” college could come from in the near future.

moneyNow affordability is a good thing, especially when it comes to a good like education. But a reality for many potential college students—including, just a few years ago, myself—is that the prospect of spending $40,000+ per year at a “quality” four-year college is both daunting and, quite simply, not affordable. The cost of education is a problem that in many places needs to be addressed, but that is not my main concern in this article. Instead, my query here is whether federal program of “free” college education is the best way to address such a concern. More judicious may be the implementation of various state community college programs (like that of Tennessee) which leave control—budgetary and otherwise—in the hands of state governments.

Finally, there are potential hidden costs. Most obvious in my mind is the issue of “responsibility cost.” As a high school teacher of mine said, “When we don’t have to contribute for the things we obtain, we tend to take them for granted. In the case of education, free has the potential to lead to things like…not showing up for class.”4 An unfortunate reality of living in a fallen world is that people tend to take less responsibility for things that they do not pay for. Speaking from my own community college experience—where many of my classmates would regularly boast about not having to pay for the classes they were taking and failing—taking advantage (and not in the good way) of “free” college education has already reached epidemical proportions.5 Given this reality, it may well be that “free” community college will lead to more money being spent on higher education with lower rates of return, as students who have slacked their way through their free years of school will pay their own way to retake courses they have already taken.6 Any plan for free college education must seriously take these possible costs into account.

Why do we need free community college?

As my wife will readily tell you, I try to be an efficient steward of what God has given me— that is code for “I do not like keeping unnecessary things around.” I am constantly trying to pare down the things laying around our small apartment to basic necessities. How I wish our government would be more like that, providing what the American people need from the federal government and leaving everything else to the states. Thus, when I hear about the possibility of “free community college,” one of my first questions is why we need such a program?

Dual EnrollmentNote that I’m not asking why we need education7, but rather why we need this particular program. More precisely, I wonder why we need a national program for community college education when there are already numerous programs out there which assist with or entirely cover the costs of community college education. For example, an increasing trend among high school students involves taking (free of charge) dual enrollment courses through a local college during the junior and senior years of high school. Additionally, many states (such as North Carolina and Michigan) have numerous, accessible, and (relatively) easy-to-get-into state schools which offer inexpensive, quality educations.

The existence of Pell Grants makes talk of “free community college” even more vexing. The Federal Pell Grant Program currently offers qualified students up to $5,550 per year to assist with college expenses, which for most community colleges is more than enough money to cover expenses, especially if you live at home.8 My wife Hayley stands as a perfect example of the value of this program, as she funded her entire two-year degree at Southwestern Michigan College through Pell Grants before pursuing another degree elsewhere. Obviously there are going to be exceptions to this rule, but the status quo concerning paying for community college seems uncannily similar to what proponents of “free” college education are suggesting—so why the need for another program? Unfortunately, this issue seems to be an example of making a problem out of something not in need of solving. And, as R. R. Reno writes, “At some point, we’ll have to recognize that our heavily regulated cultural conversation is no longer about what we’re actually experiencing. May that time come soon.”9

What are the implications of free community college?

In addition to the implications of cost and seemingly unnecessary government expansion, what are other implications of offering a(nother)“free” community college program? Following that age-old law of supply and demand, one major implication seems to be the further reduction in value of a college degree. Now, please note that I am not suggesting a reduction in the monetary value of an education—there is no inherent reason that a $4,000-a-year education is less effective than a $60,000-a-year degree.10 No, I fear the reduction in the value of a college degree will come through its vocational and educational value. Vocationally, many of us have already experienced the reality that jobs are becoming harder and harder to land without advanced qualifications (and even then, advanced degree do not always get you there without lots of experience). In contrast to earlier generations, where a high school diploma was the foundation to a decent career and a bachelor’s degree was the ticket to a top-notch job, the millennial generation is already faced with the need for a high school and college degrees to serve as the basis for decent work. This is not to suggest that college degrees should be reserved for the elite or privileged, but that attitudes about the value (and therefore cost) of a degree must shift in order to account for the changing shape and value of a college degree.

Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University

Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University

On an educational level, I fear that less and less is actually being learned by students through much of the American education system, a problem acutely felt by those students who have grasped concepts and then must stagnate as they are introduced again and again throughout numerous levels of education. This is especially true in the realms of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, where American students are already behind.11 Already many community colleges have to teach remedial reading, writing, and math courses to high school graduates— are we really committed to making the first two years of college grades 13 and 14 of high school? As someone who had a solid high school education, many of the general education classes I took in college were effectively useless, mere re-presentation and remediation of concepts and subjects which I had more than learned in high school. Of course not everyone’s experience mirrors my own, but I know many (many) students whose experiences have mimicked my own. Do we really want to continue to kick the educational can further down the expensive and time consuming road that is higher education?

It used to be that receiving your high school degree meant that you were either ready for college or for the workforce. By and large this is no longer the case.12 If initiatives for “free” college are substantially aimed at righting the wrongs of contemporary high school education by providing adequate workforce and/or educational preparation, then their impetus may be sound—though if that is the motivation, I wonder why we do not suggest substantial reform of high school curriculum. Educational reform along the lines of somewhere like Germany, where educational tracks are separated into the liberal arts and technical training, appears necessary in the future; if commitment to “free” community college education begins that type of specialization, then it may well be a step in the right direction.13 As Conciliar Post author Chris Casberg said, “A national effort to once again provide Americans with practical skills that also supply much needed workers in particular fields could do the country a lot of good.”14 Without this type of direction, however, the implications for “free” college appear less than ideal.

Final Thoughts

Education is important, impacting not only one’s career, but also one’s personhood. So we should want everyone to receive a quality education and do what we can to make that possible. But not every suggestion aimed in that direction is necessarily a good one. Prima facia, free education sounds like a great idea—but not every good sounding idea works well in reality. Making things “free” historically has failed to ensure their quality and value. The formation of human hearts, minds, souls, and lives is too important a task to leave to the chance that our nice sounding ideas will accomplish the good that we hope they will, so we must be careful in moving plans for education forward. Ideas have consequences for real people in the real world, and we would do well to critically reflect on the costs and benefits of a “free” college education before implementing such a program.


1 See Kena, G., S. Aud, F. Johnson, X. Wang, J. Zhang, A. Rathbun, S. Wilkinson-Flicker, and P. Kristapovich. “The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083).” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2014. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch. 92-95. Wallace, Gregory. “More Americans feel graduates unprepared after college.” CNN.com. September 19, 2013. http://money.cnn.com/2013/09/19/pf/college/college-preparedness-study/

2 The Obama Administration has announced that the details of the plan will be move fully developed at the forthcoming State of the Union speech on January 20th.

3 For example, compare the Congressional Budget Office’s cost assessment for the Affordable Care Act from March 2010 with the CBO’s more recent assessment of the program’s costs from April 2014.

4 Mary Williams via Facebook.

5 For more on this, see Neal McCluskey, “Community College Courtesy of the Federal Taxpayer? No Thanks”, Cato Institute (January 9, 2015). http://www.cato.org/blog/community-college-courtesy-federal-taxpayer-no-thanks

6 One way to address this concern may be reimbursing (or cancelling student loans) students only after they have satisfactorily completed their two-year degree.

7 See “The Importance of (Liberal) Education” for some of my thoughts on that.

8 According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average cost for in-district community college tuition and fees amounts to $3260 per year.

9 R.R. Reno, “Public Square: Cultural Keynesianism”, First Things 250 (February 2014), 6.

10 Though, at least according to the university rankings available at U.S. News & World Report, this may generally be true in practice.

11 See “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership.”

12 “The Condition of College & Career Readiness: National.” ACT Online. 2012. http://media.act.org/documents/CCCR12-NationalReadinessRpt.pdf

13 See Mike Rowe Works for more on this.

14 Chris Casberg via Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Prabhu B Doss.


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