Free community college programs have gained traction across the nation in recent years. In his State of the State address, Gov. Roy Cooper called for North Carolina to join the fray:
“Last year, I pushed for an effort to provide tuition-free community college for high-demand jobs… Other states are already doing this, so let’s get it done.”
His recently released budget proposal includes such a program, as described below:
As these programs progress, we can begin to ask the question: do they achieve their intended purpose? A recent article by Stateline, a Pew Charitable Trust publication, seeks to answer that question. The article is called, “‘Free College’ Is Increasingly Popular — and Complicated for States.”
The article is an informative overview of the programs in various states, including some undeniably costly and problematic elements.
The Stateline piece also highlights some successes across the nation. Programs in Rhode Island and Tennessee have produced students that graduate at a higher rate than the rest of the student bodies at their schools. But the article fails to make a very obvious connection.
One objection from the left-leaning sources in the article is that these programs don’t help the neediest individuals because low-income people already qualify for heavily subsidized higher education. Commenting on a free-community college proposal put forward by the Obama administration, Civitas Policy Director Bob Luebke agrees:
“Currently the United States provides billions in student need-based financial aid to eligible low- and middle-income students. The administration’s free college proposal would not only reduce the costs of education for many who already qualify for a free or lower-cost education, it would also provide free education for students whose families have the means to pay for part or all of a college education.
In part, working-class families will be forced to subsidize college degrees for rich kids.”
However, the Stateline article never circles back to draw the connection between free college program populations and higher success rates. It is possible that program-funded students are higher income, on average, than the student body as a whole. If income is positively correlated with graduation, for a variety of reasons, then there is likely no true relationship between the free college programs and higher graduation rates. The programs may simply isolate a population that was more likely to graduate anyway.
To be fair, Cooper seems to be aware of the intended population for such programs. Cooper preceded his previously highlighted statement by saying, “Many middle-class families often can’t afford the education they need.”
However, the governor’s proposal does nothing to address the cause of the affordability problem: rising costs. Instead, it throws new money at an old problem.
Not surprisingly, the progressive perspectives mentioned in the Stateline article don’t think that free tuition is enough. They claim that the phrase “free college” is misleading because textbooks, student fees, transportation costs, and room and board costs are not included.
Their position on this issue is very revealing. One government handout will never be enough for the Left.
The experiences of other states show us that “free college” programs are costly and fail to achieve the large-scale effects claimed by their proponents. Cooper’s proposal would lead North Carolina down the same slippery slope of ever increasing government intervention in higher education.