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Are Free College Classes Good News or Bad News?

Have you heard the news? A growing number of communities across the U.S. are now offering free college tuition to students. In reaction to rising higher education costs, as well as education budget cuts, 200 campus locations are providing some form of tuition-free community college education, hoping that the return on investment will boost their economies. If you’re counting, it’s 12 states that are now doing this … and growing.

This could be a game changer.

I have visited two of these cities. One is Kalamazoo, Michigan. Beginning in 2005, college and technical education was offered for free in this western Michigan community. The benefits have been tangible. Population decline—what some call “resident erosion”—has stopped. Students who could likely not afford post-secondary courses are now able to take them and perhaps envision a future different from their parents or grandparents. This is all good news.

A Mixed Bag for Some Cities

Tim Ready, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University, says free tuition has been “marginally beneficial but not a slam dunk.” He reports that between 2005-2014, the city’s public school enrollment grew by almost 25 percent, though the number of low-income kids receiving free lunches also increased. So, the bleeding has not been completely stopped. Often, a low-income college student will enroll in free classes, but not have any goal to reach or any ambition to finish and graduate. They simply remain consumers.

In other words, tuition does not equal aspiration.

In response, some city officials are seeing the need to incentivize outcomes for students. In other words, to make it worth their while to finish and take on jobs that are most lacking locally. This incentive is built off of the principle: what gets rewarded gets repeated. In addition, some officials are placing restrictions on who is eligible for the largest scholarships—making sure the right students get the most help. Many have learned the principle: if something is free, it often isn’t perceived as valuable as if the user has some skin in the game.

The city of Greeley, Colorado has also implemented “The Greeley Promise.” City leaders want students to know that if they want to attend college after high school graduation, money will not prevent them from doing so. Roy Otto, the City Manager, saw what had happened in Kalamazoo and has worked with business leaders and community officials to make scholarships happen in his city. It has brought so many people together on behalf of the kids. The initiative is so fresh, it may be too new to draw any long-term conclusions about how it will help city morale and the economy. My hat is off, however, to Roy for his vision to help disadvantaged students in Greeley. He and his comrades have become dear friends of mine; they are passionate examples for city leaders everywhere. I believe they possess the kind of vision community leaders need in today’s 21st century world. Established adults making a path for the emerging generation.

The Pros and Cons

Let me attempt to start a summary of “pros and cons” regarding free college education:

Pros Cons
1. All students gain access to education 1. A huge expense for taxpayers and cities
2. Students can envision a better future 2. Students may need incentives to finish
3. City population stays high and keeps workers 3. Some students don’t value what is free
4. Young professionals are better trained for jobs 4. Budgets may be unable to fulfill the promise
5. Morale and hope increase in the community 5. Restrictions are vital to prevent scamming

So—what are your thoughts?

Do you see more positives than negatives on this issue of free post secondary education? Why or why not? Leave your comments and let’s think through this issue.


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