Are We Finally Moving Toward Making 4-Year Public Colleges and Universities Free for All?

Weed for all isn't the only thing on Oregon's mind right now.
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Publish date:
July 10, 2015
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education, politics, student loans, higher education

Something is emerging from amidst the richly-scented clouds of smoke wafting through newly marijuana-legal Oregon this week: A proposal for nearly free statewide community college. It's particularly timely, because the Obama Administration has been lobbying on the issue for months, and legislators just introduced a law that would pay for two years of junior college for all Americans. Free community college is already dank, if you know what I mean, and it could be the gateway drug (forgive me) for something even more spectacular: Free education at public colleges and universities.

Given that tuition and fees are at an all-time high and many students are graduating with a heavy burden of debt, this is a pretty big, you know, deal, as our beloved vice president would say.

On a more serious note, we already know that higher education pays off. High school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million over the course of their lives, while people with associate degrees earn $1.6 million. The United States Department of Labor and its delightedly painstaking statistics department illustrates that those who go on to get a bachelor's degree earn substantially more, and those with graduate degrees are even better situated. Except for us liberal arts majors. (I'll meet you at the drive-through window.)

Free community college means that low-income people and people attending college for the first time can get an associate's degree, earn more, and have a better chance of success over the course of their lives. It also sets them up for transfer to public colleges and universities, promoting, uh, higher higher education. Right now, that higher education costs megabucks, as opposed to the situation in socialist countries like the Netherlands, where colleges and universities offer free and very low-cost tuition.

I don't want to hammer in the coincidences here too much, but have you been to Amsterdam lately?

Oregon is actually the second state in this great nation of ours to explore free community college tuition. The first was Tennessee, which operates on what's known as a "last dollar" scholarship fund. The state doesn't actually pay everyone's tuition in a free money party—instead, once students have applied for and received any available financial aid, the state steps up to bridge the gap. Oregon plans to use the same model, and hopes that some 10,000 students will start applying for federal funds they're missing out on so they can attend college instead of growing dope. Oregon's bill has passed the House and Senate, and it's waiting for final gubernatorial approval, but it's pretty much in the bag.

Guess all those stoned legislators did find time to slip in a quickie right before recess.

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The whole point of public community/junior/technical college as well as public colleges and universities is to provide low-cost education to residents. At one time, schools actually lived up to this mandate. Some colleges and universities actually didn't charge tuition at all or had very low fees, making them accessible to everyone. That changed with conservative economic policies in the 1970s, when conservatives decided that because higher education increases earnings, people should be forced to pay for it — ignoring the fact that it's hard to pay for it when you haven't actually earned that money yet. Theoretically student loans address that problem, but not when tuition is rising so much that it's not realistically possible to pay them back, and all that debt drags down the economy.

Some folks complain that community college has a very high attrition rate, making such proposals rather pointless. This is definitely an issue, but the factors behind it aren't as simple as these critics suggest—it's not about lack of motivation on the part of students, but about accessibility issues. For many, community college is too expensive (catch a theme here?) to stick with all the way through, between costs for tuition, fees, textbooks, and so forth. Working students can't afford to cover these costs while also addressing the expenses of living, and free college would change that.

Moreover, many community colleges lack mentorship programs to help people integrate and navigate more successfully. In Tennessee, students actually have to enroll with a mentor and complete community service to remain eligible. For those who aren't familiar with the college system or who are leaving home for the first time, this is also a big deal, as it can help those wild kids stay in school.

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Others challenge the affordability of free community college programs. Statewide programs like Tennessee's and Oregon's proposed plans rely on funding from sources like the lottery, already dedicated to education funding, but there's another source of funding in the form of the huge savings created when states educate their residents. Oregon lawmakers pointed out that it's way cheaper to educate people than it is to pay out millions of dollars in social services for low-income Oregonians who can't afford food, the costs of housing, and other expenses—and the state is struggling with unemployment due to shrinking jobs in timber and fishing, two traditional industries. Providing free community college is actually an incredibly smart fiscal decision for the state.

Nationwide, Obama's proposal doesn't replace state plans: It supplements them with a dollar matching program. Directing education funds to this purpose is feasible, and would, again, save the federal government money as it would relieve the burden on federal assistance programs.

There are some legitimate concerns here about who would be getting this money, in light of for-profit education scandals. Obama's proposal actually addresses this issue in detail, requiring community colleges to meet certain standards to be eligible for funding (for example, they need to offer courses to prepare people for transfer to a four-year, or offer occupational training) and creating mechanisms for accountability. In fact, funding free college could help drive exploitative for-profit schools out of business by making it easy for everyone to go to school.

These proposals lay some important groundwork. If the Obama Administration can leave the legacy of free junior college behind, it will create substantial benefits for Americans. But it also leaves the door (gate?) open to a subsequent push for free or low-cost public colleges and universities, restoring the cost of attendance to pre-1970s levels. For the first time in a generation, students of all backgrounds could access affordable higher education, and the nation could take its social and legal obligation to provide accessible education to all more seriously.

The bottom line on free college is that it helps people earn more over the course of their lives, which benefits low-income Americans and the economy alike. People who are holding their own financially aren't using government benefits, and they're spending money, creating more economic activity. Fiscally, free college is a sensible and efficient way of addressing government spending, even if it feels counterintuitive—the government needs to spend money to save money, and while the initial outlay may be high, it will start paying off within several years.

There's another reason to get into free college and university, though. At The Atlantic, Richard D. Kahlenberg points out that when you make college free and provide mentorship programs to help people get into and stay in school, you increase socioeconomic and racial diversity in higher education in the United States. This is intrinsically good for a country that's often highly segregated by class and race, and it can also be a major step towards addressing racialized earnings disparities. Higher education won't eliminate racist hiring and salary practices, but it will put more people of color in positions to apply for potentially high-paying jobs.

Free community college is definitely worth putting in your bong and smoking, my friends.

Photo credits: COD Newsroom, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, RV1864, CC