That’s what Californians will be funding if Governor Brown signs Assembly Bill 19, which provides a year of free tuition to anyone enrolling in a California community college, regardless of the student’s income. The bill isn’t intended to help the poor – about 43 percent of the nearly 2.4 million community college students in the state already receive tuition waivers.
Rather, AB 19 is meant to boost falling enrollment in many California community colleges, and address what the Public Policy Institute of California predicts to be a shortage of more than one million college-educated workers in the state over the next decade.
California’s generously subsidized community colleges are already among the cheapest in the nation. But at an additional cost to taxpayers of $30 to $50 million, AB 19 will give a free pass on tuition for an estimated 19,000 middle class and affluent students. At $46 per credit, or $1,400 a year for a full course load, that’s a savings equal to the cost of the new iPhone 8 and 10 Starbucks Americanos a month. (Ahhh, to be in school again!)
But will one free year of community college really turn out tens of thousands of sharp, hard-working, motivated students prepared for the workforce of the future?
Belinda Luscombe, editor-at-large of TIME, wrote the following firsthand account of what happened to her and her fellow students when Australia decided to make college free for everyone:
“It makes them frivolous. Many people fear that not having to pay for college will make students take college less seriously. This is absolutely true. My fellow students and I did not take college very seriously. We just did exactly what we wanted to do. We joined clubs and took on activities that would never have occurred to students who were dedicated to their studies.
“It makes them less choosy. The decision on whether to go to university at all was also less considered. My parents weren’t college graduates, but they expected their four kids to be. It was free. We had nothing better to do. So we went. There were no tours, no counselors, no essays and recommendation letters. Indeed, there were almost no private colleges, since it’s impossible to compete with free.
“It makes them less money conscious. I worked a series of hysterically bad jobs while at college: chocolate shop, cheese shop, formal wear rental chain, jewelry chain and pavlova factory. When your living expenses are low and you’re not racking up debt, you tend to quit when jobs feel too tough. The glass-half-full way of saying that is that you can also try a lot of stuff. And, crucially for me, you can leave your job when conscience prevents you from letting one more clueless groom rent a brown wedding tuxedo.”
Fast forward to today, Australia no longer offers free college.
My conclusion: free community college is just another way of stretching out your high school years. “We had nothing better to do. So we went,” Ms. Luscombe wrote. Indeed, who can doubt that we’ll see an explosion of enrollment among middle-class and affluent students who would have likely entered and paid tuition at four-year institutions? The ballooning costs of these free spots would over time lead to rationing, and eventually reduce access for poor students.
In addition, free college does nothing to improve the quality of community colleges. Since it’s hard to compete with free, colleges don’t have to worry about students looking at other options. And without competition, there’s no accountability for performance. We’ve seen this movie before, the quality of K-12 education in California is ranked among the worst in the nation.
California’s community colleges have their own challenges, and an influx of students won’t solve them. Andrew Kelly of AEI writes in the New York Times, “Despite free tuition, just one-third of students from the bottom income quartile who started at a community college in 2003 finished a degree or certificate by 2009. Two-year students from the top income quartile didn’t do much better (42 percent).”
Kelly continues, “These numbers suggest that lackluster outcomes are not entirely, or even mostly, a function of tuition prices, but reflect deeper problems.” Like the fact that in California, 80 percent of entering students in community colleges need to take at least one remedial course in math, English or both.
Free community college won’t address the real problems of workforce readiness, or the economic cost to California in terms of lost jobs and businesses moving out of the state. What’s needed is fundamental education reform that includes accountability and competition. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke: Californians beware — if you think college is expensive now, just wait until it’s free.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.