Free tuition for college students is fatally flawed



Speaking as a trustee at the Lone Star College System, before that teaching at the college for six years, I must confess that Secretary Clinton’s marquee higher education proposal–to give public college students free tuition if their family income is less yearly than $125,000–is not a good idea.  As a trustee, I speak here only for myself.

No one wants more than I to enable low-income students to get both an education and a job.  That’s why I taught at Lone Star College, then ran for the Board.  There’s no greater joy for me than watching our young people get an education, a degree, and a job, becoming productive members of our community. But Clinton’s proposal is riddled with flaws and is counterproductive.

1. Her proposal is anti intellectual and will expand academic indolence.  As Jackson Toby, professor emeritus at Rutgers, observed, “Since marginal students know while they are still in high school that they will be able to be admitted and get financial aid at some college, they lack incentive to try to learn as much as they could in high school.”  Free tuition will exacerbate disincentives to study hard.  With no skin in the game, why should students bother?

It gets worse.  I focus on community colleges because those are the trenches I work in.  The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has reported that “more than half of students entering a Texas public two-year college do not meet state college-readiness standards. . . . Of every 100 two-year students who are below the state readiness standard when they enter college, only 38 have graduated.”  It would be a staggering waste of money to provide free tuition to all two-year college applicants.  And free tuition would also serve as a magnet, drawing more applicants–even as the current crop of applicants show such a staggering lack of college readiness.

2. Community colleges are already a generous financial bargain.  Tuition at our community college is only $1,552  a year  (four courses a semester).  A high percentage of students also receive Pell grants up to $5,730.  Tuition at four-year colleges runs about $8,000 to $10,000 a year, plus room and board—making tuition at community colleges a bargain indeed.

3. History reveals that government control inevitably in greater or lesser degree, sooner or later accompanies government money.  Expect some degree of federal control with federal money under Clinton’s program. The Department of Justice and the Department of Education could mandate to colleges who to hire and what courses to teach.  Let the colleges locally determine these matters as they fit the demographics of the local community.

4. History also tells us that federal money to colleges enables a largesse that drives up college costs.  Colleges will argue that Uncle Sam can pay for increases in tuition and other college costs, especially construction of new structures.  More money to students means that colleges will raise tuition in commensurate measure.

5. Free federal money for tuition has to come from somebody—taxpayers.  Governments don’t make money; they collect it and redistribute it. Clinton’s proposal would eliminate tuition for more than 80% of all families, who would owe no tuition for students at in-state public colleges and universities.  It’s not “free” tuition:  somebody else pays for it.

6. Free tuition schemes doesn’t address expensive costs for room and board, so the more affluent would benefit more from “free” college.

7. Finally, if the GOP retains control of the House, a free-tuition bill would be DOA.  Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution mandates that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House”—and free tuition won’t pass in this House.

I cannot believe that any legislator with a sense of the likelihood of abuses and counter productivity under Clinton’s plan would support her free tuition proposal.  The intentions are good, but the devil is in the details.  At Lone Star College, we do the best that we can with our limited resources to help as many students financially as possible. Instead of always throwing other people’s money at the problem, Clinton (and the rest of the Washington establishment) should take a look at how Texas community colleges already provide our students with affordable education–without burdening taxpayers.

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