Free college plan will be complex issue



Like most people, I was overjoyed when I first heard about President Barack Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free for all Americans. But after consideration, this issue should be dealt with by states individually, rather than by the federal government.

My initial reaction was due to the glaring benefits of free community college. We should always try to open the door wider to education, and free access to college classrooms would attest to how far we’ve come.

Also, free community college can benefit those in the lower and middle classes who struggle to afford higher education. Armed with new skills, graduates would have more, and better, job prospects.

It seems that our society would thrive like never before if everyone had access to K-14 education. But if this ideal spread from documents in D.C., we would find problems outweighing benefits.

For one, not all of the cost of college is tuition. The American Association for Community Colleges found that average tuition and fees are just 21 percent of the cost to attend community college; free tuition in no way removes all obstacles to higher education.

Secondly, we have no idea how this lofty plan would change the landscape of community colleges across the nation. Our only model is Tennessee, where a similar system enacted last year led to 90% of high school seniors applying to community college. The whole higher education system will be changed, but we don’t know how yet.

And there are a variety of other reasons to be wary of Obama’s proposal. Do we really want to force states to pay for a part of the cost and extend public education, which already fails to prepare all students for college?

However, I realized that this idea was just a talking point for Obama, rather than a genuine proposal. Without a plan to pay for it, as well as a Republican-controlled congress, free community college was not introduced sincerely.

At best, the executive office is trying to influence states to pick up this good idea; at worst, they are intentionally shaping the policy debates of the 2016 election cycle.

But we can be sure that the discussion about free community college will continue. Knowledge will help us be able to distinguish empty rhetoric from informed opinions.

In the end, I can envision that this plan is tossed out for lack of funding. This would be unfortunate, as most Americans can probably agree on less-praiseworthy spending (i.e. foreign aid to Israel and Pakistan, an oversized military, or the broken Social Security system).

Even with the proper funds, free community college should be a state issue. But the federal money would be better used for Pell grants, existing student debt and K-12 education.

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