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Cost of Free Community College Education

President Obama recently proposed in his State of the Union Address that a community college education should be free for all Americans. What is the cost of free community college education? That’s right. No tuition!

It sounds like a free gift, but what is the true cost of free community college education?

It sounds like a free gift, but what is the true cost of free community college education?

Billed as a way to get more low-income high school graduates into college, a free community college education has met with strong skepticism from many higher education leaders, and I happen to be one of them.

First, it is hard to know just how many additional students would take advantage of a free community college education who had not already decided to attend one. After all, there are already millions of students attending community colleges across the United States because it is so inexpensive in comparison to all other forms of higher education, including public and private  four-year colleges, universities, and propriety institutions.

Community college is the financially viable alternative for those who do not want to attend a four-year institution or who want to complete their associate’s degree first.

Second, community colleges have attrition rates that are considerably higher than their four-year counterparts, and they have the highest loan default rates of any higher education sector. Allowing students to attend community colleges at no cost will only increase what are already poor performance indicators related to completion rates.

A hidden cost of free community college education could be the sad experience of people who drop out of college. This is because students are far more likely to achieve academic success and demonstrate responsibility if they have to contribute something to their education. They need to have “some skin in the game.”

Third, and perhaps most significant, free tuition may undermine our four-year colleges and universities, both public and private, as even more high school graduates choose the community college for their first two years of postsecondary education. In other words, free community college tuition will likely lure many freshman and sophomores away from the four-year institutions they were considering attending. To our society, the cost of free community college may be the further undermining of a higher-education system which has been the envy of the world

Fourth, there has been significant reductions in state and federal funding for our public institutions within recent years as well as a decrease in some forms of aid for students in both the public and private sector. It appears that free education in the community college will only take more money out of a shrinking pot.

Overall, free community college tuition will exacerbate what is already a challenging financial situation.

I have always been a proponent of community colleges. They serve a much broader student population than four-year institutions, and at a very low cost. Let’s keep it that way. Why does the government desire to become overly intrusive in one of the finest higher education systems in the world?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Dr. McKinney’s original article can be accessed at McKinney Solutions Blog.


Dr. Larry McKinney is a higher education consultant specializing in institutional effectiveness, strategy, and change for Christian colleges and universities.  Past positions include president of Simpson University, executive director of the Association for Biblical Higher Education, and president of Providence University College & Seminary.


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