The “free college” movement, fueled to a large degree by Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential bid, is a response to concerns about increasing college-tuition rates, concomitant stagnation in state and federal grants, and a corresponding student-loan debt load that has ballooned to roughly $1.4 trillion. Indeed, inflation-adjusted data provided by the College Board shows that the average sticker price of higher-education tuition (excluding room and board) over the past ten years has increased 32 percent for two-year public colleges, 37 percent for four-year public colleges, and 26 percent for four-year private nonprofit colleges. In contrast, student financial aid has remained virtually flat. To cover rising costs, families have become increasingly dependent on increased institutional aid and student loans. At present, the combined average annual borrowing for undergraduate students and their parents is nearly $22,500 per year.
In light of these sobering statistics, it is understandable why the “Free College for All” platform would appeal to families with college-age students. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, support has increased among all voters, including those who identify as Republican. In a poll conducted by Morning Consult last September, 63 percent of all Americans — including 45 percent of Trump voters, 47 percent of self-identified Republicans, and 50 percent of Tea Party supporters — endorse the idea of making public colleges and universities tuition-free to academically qualified students.
Accordingly, lawmakers in many red and blue states have introduced legislation to make some segments of their public higher-education systems free for in-state residents. Citing the need for a college-educated workforce, Tennessee Republican governor Bill Haslam signed legislation last year that would make community college free for all adult learners. The $35 million program, which is funded by the state lottery, aims to increase the number of residents with a college education from 39 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Policymakers in Oregon and California have recently enacted similar measures. The Oregon Promise “last dollar” scholarship program covers any tuition costs not covered by other grants for community-college students from low- to middle-income families. Similarly, California lawmakers enacted a provision that would expand community-college fee waivers, currently available to low-income students, to all first-time freshmen who enroll full-time.
While “free community college for all” programs promise to increase the number of college graduates for relatively little cost, national data reveal it to be a poor strategy. According to a recent study by Indiana University, only 30 percent of community-college students completed their two-year program within six years, and only 7.7 percent completed a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution within a six-year timeframe. More significantly, almost half of all first-time community-college students — 47.3 percent — stopped attending without earning any type of degree. Granted, the results are slightly better among community-college students who enroll full-time and thus are presumably more committed to their studies; but even among these students, fewer than half completed a two-year program in six years’ time.
Read more at National Review.