Other’s Opinion: ‘Free college’ plans needs refinement

Published 9:05 am Friday, January 16, 2015

“Free college” is a hot idea these days, with President Obama talking it up nationally and some DFL legislators touting it for Minnesota.

Not to be the higher education equivalent of a polar vortex, but some cold realities need to be addressed for this idea (or any suggestion of “free” public college) to move forward. In short, any new program needs to accomplish three major objectives:

— Raise four-year graduation rates, ideally while shrinking the time it takes to graduate.

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— Reduce costs of higher education for as many as possible.

— And make sure students have a vested interest in graduating.

Graduation rates

The president mainly wants to increase access to higher education by making community college free. That’s important, but to truly help Americans improve their economic standing, graduation rates from four-year colleges also must be considered. Why? A recent report in The Atlantic exposed some important national statistics:

— Just 20 percent of students who started community college in 2009 had completed their programs three years later in 2012.

— Only about 15 percent of students who start out at a community college earn a bachelor’s degree after six years.

Research also shows that when students with similar test scores and grades attend community college or a four-year school, the latter are far more likely to earn a degree. Plus, the lifetime earning potential of a four-year degree is much higher.


Obama’s idea of paying tuition for students with a 2.5 GPA and progressing toward degrees would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years. States would likely have to pay, too, because the feds would cover only about 75 percent of the bill. No funding sources have been identified.

While free for some is nice, America’s massive student debt problem makes a compelling case to create programs that help as many students as possible, including those already in school. Look no further than Minnesota, where the average graduate from a four-year school leaves owing close to $30,000.


Finally, let’s get away from “free.”

Giving a student thousands of dollars with no required return on that public investment unfairly burdens U.S. taxpayers, not to mention feeds an “entitlement” attitude that’s already testing this nation’s fiscal health.

Even something as simple as changing “free” to a 50-50 split will give participants some “skin in the game” while potentially lowering student levels and spreading that $60 billion among twice as many students.

—The St. Cloud Times