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States must demand more from free community college

Massachusetts has joined a number of US states that now offer free community college options to qualified residents. Most free tuition programs pay for adult learners who have never attended college or who have not attained a minimum number of credits. Many pattern themselves after the Tennessee Reconnect program, which began in 2013, and pays for anyone (including those who just graduated from high school) to attend community college in the pursuit of a degree or certificate.

Free community college tuition is a great idea, provided that there is a lot of coordination between the state, its community colleges, and its workforce needs. This isn’t my idea; it’s an idea that is gaining popularity as more states jump on the free-community-college bandwagon.

Without a clear-eyed focus on the desired outcomes, sending people to community college is wasteful. It not only wastes the state’s (presumably) limited resources, but also the student’s time.

I have often said that a great way to reduce student loan liability would be to limit what the federal government pays for with the program. Instead of paying for everything and anything, the student loan program should be exceptionally generous to students who choose high-need majors. For example, there is a growing shortage of doctors in the United States. Albert Einstein School of Medicine just eliminated tuition (permanently) for students who wish to study medicine. This program is funded by an extremely generous grant from a private donor. Nonetheless, going forward, the se students will not have to pay tuition to study medicine. If more schools (or more aptly, states) did this with high-demand fields, more students would apply to fill these slots.

Free community college programs need direction and guardrails

Need more teachers? More plumbers, welders, carpenters, mechanics, millwrights? More STEM graduates? Stop charging tuition. Still need more? Offer stipends to assist students with their tool purchases or other expenses while they study, complete internships, or finish their student teaching. Michigan finally pays student teachers. Prior to a recent change in state law, student teachers could not receive payment for teaching full time for a semester or two, and they also had to agree NOT to work anywhere else during that period while simultaneously paying for a full semester or year of university tuition. It’s not hard to figure out why there’s a teacher shortage.

On the flip side, tuition assistance (or lack of it) can also discourage students from selecting other majors that don’t lead to meaningful economic outcomes. Want to major in a field that is shrinking, has few annual openings, or pays poorly? Subsidies and federal student loans are not available for those majors.

To make this approach work, however, there needs to be very clear coordination and policy decisions that help clarify what majors and programs support an area’s economic development goals. In other words, “Why do we have community colleges, and what do we expect out of them?”

Having a clear, unambiguous statement from funding sources (federal, state, and county governments as well as students) will help community colleges eliminate the financial ratholes they seemingly can’t resist – like building for-profit ventures using public funding intended for education. Or hiring a dozen executives. Or wasting money by not addressing excessive energy consumption and infrastructure needs when the cost to do so is at its lowest.

Photo Credit: Luca Biada , via Flickr