Phi Beta Cons

Does Free Community College Really “Work”?

Inside Higher Ed is rarely skeptical about “progressive” educational policies; most of its articles are of the rah-rah cheerleading sort and one today entitled “Free Community College: It Works” is a good example.

It is about a program in Tulsa, OK that has provided “free” (of course, nothing is free since there are always opportunity costs, but that point is lost on most education writers) community college for students in the area for the last eight years. And what is the evidence that it “works”? It has led to “increased degree production.”

Of course you’ll get more degree production if students don’t have to pay, but what we should care about is not that statistic, but rather how efficiently we use limited resources to enable young people to acquire necessary skills and knowledge. The article observes that local businesses (some, anyway) like the program, but how could they complain about spending that costs them little but helps to reduce their training costs marginally? If it weren’t for “free” community college, they might set up their own training programs.

People who are paid to write about higher education often do so from a lofty perspective where things appear to work just as they’re supposed to. Students enroll, take courses, learn material, and graduate much the wiser. But to writers who have actually been in the trenches, the picture is not so wonderful. In that regard, consider Mary Grabar’s recent Pope Center piece, in which she argued that community colleges are already beset with problems — problems that would become worse if students could attend for free.


George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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