Free College Is Worse Than You Think
When Barack Obama called college an economic imperative, he did a disservice to millions of young people.
When the current cast of presidential hopefuls call for college that’s free, they do a disservice to America.
For years, liberals have romanticized a college education as the key to greater income and a better life. To be sure, study after study show that on average, college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than those with a high school education. But the key is getting that degree — all bets are off when students don’t graduate.
For some, a college degree is simply unattainable. The reasons are many, including a K-12 public education system that has so poorly served students that passing remedial coursework such as geometry and intermediate algebra — let alone first year calculus – is beyond the ability of many young people. Without having grasped the fundamentals of math, which should have been learned in elementary and middle school, by the time these young people reach their early 20s, they’re simply too far behind.
There’s also the politically incorrect fact that some people just don’t have the patience, grit, or intellectual ability to go through college. In the U.S., only about half of first-time college students entering a four-year institution finish after six years. For community colleges, it’s even worse. A recent survey by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Cal State Sacramento found that a shocking 70 percent of California’s community college students fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution.
These dismal results – particularly at the inexpensive community college level – show that money isn’t the issue. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to provide free college to first-time, full-time students in their second year will have little impact on completion rates. For many low-income students, college is already free. According to Politifact, there were 100,000 first-time, full-time students for the full 2017-18 academic year. About two-thirds, or 64,000 of these students already qualified for free tuition under a different program. Another 9,000 didn’t qualify because they were out-of-state. That left about 28,000 students eligible for a second free year according to Newsom’s office. If his proposal passes, it will be interesting to see just how many of those students graduate with an AA degree or transfer to a 4-year institution after their second year.
Newsom’s attempt to offer free college in the state pales in comparison to the presidential candidates who advocate for flat out tuition-free or debt-free college. If anything, free college is likely to make completion rates worse because “free” will inevitably attract even more underqualified and non-serious students, leaving taxpayers paying more for higher education than they already do now. Furthermore, without the cost/benefit analysis in prospective students’ minds, more of them would gravitate to majors they fancy, rather than what the job market requires.
A Brookings study cites that students who graduate from high school entering STEM fields on average have higher income prospects than those who have college majors in psychology and fine arts. Often, it’s the latter who remain in debt for years. Free college would only exacerbate the problem. I myself just might take early retirement and major in religion, philosophy, or the fine arts.
Making college free may lure more people into college, but the reality is that after years of college life, many find that it isn’t for them. Lost are the years that could have been spent on on-the-job training, learning specialized skills, logging in experience, earning seniority, and in time higher incomes.
The U.S. must take a hard look at how we train people for jobs of the future and learn from the success of other countries. Germany, in particular, has developed effective programs that train people for highly-skilled jobs that provide good incomes. While in the U.S., thousands of jobs requiring skilled technical knowledge go unfilled. If the U.S. is to remain competitive with China and other countries, we need to fill these jobs. We won’t with college that’s free.
Rowena Itchon is vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.