The Corner

Education

What’s Wrong with the Idea of ‘Free’ College?

Everyone knows that Bernie and Hillary tried to fire up their redistributionist supporters by yammering about their plans for “free” college in 2016. What few people know is that Tennessee actually fell for that in 2015, enacting its “Drive to 55” initiative. The “55” is the target for the percentage of Tennessee residents who have college credentials of some kind, a target the state wants to hit by 2025.

It isn’t working out quite as hoped, and Chris West looks at the consequences in today’s Martin Center article.

The plan lures students into the state’s community colleges with free tuition. You might immediately think that would appeal to students from poor backgrounds, but in fact this is turning out to be a middle-class entitlement. The data, West writes, show that “low-income students are not the ones benefiting from this program. It’s just the opposite: free college programs disproportionately benefit students from middle-class and wealthier backgrounds because those students do not qualify for federal Pell Grants or other assistance.”

Moreover, West writes, “Tennessee has also lowered the requirements for acceptance into community colleges, such as doing away with algebra as a prerequisite for nontechnical tracks. Additionally, Tennessee’s community college system has been forced to increase the number of remedial courses it offers for unqualified students.”

Another unintended consequence is the “free college” plan is that some students who would have pursued other kinds of education or training after high school — programs that would have probably worked better for them — are instead availing themselves of no-cost community college.

West nails the truth here:

People should also be suspicious of claims that their prosperity depends primarily on higher education. While it is true that the future economy will grow more sophisticated and knowledge-dependent, it is best to let educational levels rise as needed, rather than trying to force people into educational programs for jobs that don’t exist — and may never exist.

True, but even in a generally conservative state like Tennessee, politicians can’t resist meddling.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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