Free College Tuition - The Right Way to Pay?

The conversation about free college tuition is growing louder and larger as educators and lawmakers try to find a way to produce an educated workforce without sending students into mountains of debt.

In Tennessee, the Tennessee Promise is ready to make its debut, with the initiative's first students expected to enroll in college in the fall of 2015. The plan was created as a way to raise the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025, which long-term could then improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state. The program covers a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate. It is expected to cost the state of Tennessee about $34 million annually and will be funded by using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and joining it with a $47 million endowment.

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that Indiana is considering a similar plan. The Lumina Foundation estimates that about two of every three residents in both Tennessee and Indiana don't have a college degree. And the state of Indiana estimates that by 2025, more than 500,000 additional residents will need to graduate with certificates or associate's degrees to meet employer demand.

Community College Daily reports that the idea of free college is picking up momentum elsewhere. Seven "work colleges" are already in existence in the U.S. At one in Kentucky, students can receive free tuition in exchange for participation in the student work program that requires full-time students to put in a minimum of 10 hours per week and 160 hours per semester either on-campus or off.

A free ride may sound like the best ride, but we must enter into these programs with caution. It will be interesting to watch how these initiatives unfold and whether they are truly sustainable. An educated workforce must be a goal for lawmakers. Unfortunately, the priority of higher education costs is an issue that varies greatly from state to state. For states like Illinois that remain hindered by increasing debt, this kind of reform will be slow to come, if at all, because the money just isn't there.

So what can community colleges do to ease the financial burden on students? At my institution, College of DuPage, we have shown we can do quite a bit to control our expenses and revenue. So much so that, for the first time in our 48-year history, our Board of Trustees approved a proposal on Aug. 21 to reduce tuition by $4 per credit hour starting in spring semester 2015. If all goes well, we hope to avoid raising tuition for the following year as well.

At College of DuPage, we also provide free tuition for Presidential Scholars and offer a growing number of scholarships through our Foundation. Our 3+1 program gives students the opportunity to earn an entire bachelor's degree from a partnering four-year institution at a much reduced tuition rate. Community colleges are not allowed to offer baccalaureate degrees under Illinois law. I am currently leading a committee of community college presidents to explore pursuing a change in state law that would allow community colleges to offer select baccalaureate degrees in the applied technologies. If the state eventually allows us to offer select bachelor's degrees, this will mean great savings for students.

It is vital that both two-year and four-year colleges and universities keep searching for ways to make education more affordable. This must be accomplished by making actual cost reductions and by increasing returns on investment by offering degrees that result in bankable jobs. Meanwhile, cost-reducing plans at the state or federal level must result in less real debt for our students without bankrupting state or federal coffers and certainly without negative ramifications for students in the future who participate in these initiatives.