Free Community College Education for All: A Good Idea?

There has been a lot of attention paid to community colleges all across the country. President George W. Bush talked about the importance of community colleges and their role in preparing an educated and trained workforce on numerous occasions. President Barack Obama has also talked a great deal about the importance of community colleges to the country's economy, preparing a workforce, and to provide access to higher education when so many of our citizens need it.

Certainly, we at Fulton-Montgomery Community College are pleased to be recognized by the President of the United States for the work we do. The faculty and staff at FM work hard every day to help students achieve their goals, to provide opportunities for those whom may not have had them in the past, and to act as a center for the community to gather, learn, and experience new ideas and culture on our campus.

Recently, President Obama announced his desire to provide a free community college education to anyone who would like one. He believes that such an initiative will increase student access to higher education and improve completion rates. While it is an admirable intention, I believe it is the wrong direction.

I am not convinced that the cost of a community college education is a barrier to many people who truly want a degree. FM's tuition is less than $4,000 per year. While there are fees, the cost of books, etc., that add to that cost, scholarships and financial aid can make a community college education attainable for almost everyone.

The cost of providing a free community college education will be high for the federal government (although his proposal encourages a partnership with state funds as well) at a time when investment in people, infrastructure, or the future seems a difficult concept for many levels of government. It is highly unlikely that Congress will approve such an initiative.

I suspect that those who would benefit from a free community college education are those who would have attended college anyway. Since financial aid is based on income, it seems to me that providing a free community college education to everyone is more likely to support those who could afford the tuition at community colleges rather than those who cannot. Thus, I think that this initiative would benefit those who have resources instead of those who do not. If you want to help those who do not have the wealth to attend community colleges, modify the income requirements for financial aid.

Lastly, a college education is a voluntary experience. That is, no one is required to attend college like we are primary and secondary school (until the age of 16). Having a tuition free community college experience could turn community colleges into an extension of high school. Part of motivating students to succeed in college is that they have "some skin in the game." They are paying, at least some, of the costs. It just seems to be human nature that when you're paying (or your parents are paying) for something, you take it more seriously than when it is free.

I applaud the President's desire to have an educated citizenry in the United States. We have fallen behind many other industrialized nations. However, I suspect that there are more effective ways to encourage college success than to provide a free college experience to everyone.