Free community college is a “want,” not a “need”

I am a consistent supporter and cheerleader of our state’s higher education system. Our universities, technical schools, and community colleges are vital to Washington’s economic vitality. I’m so glad that after decades of declining investment, we’ve finally reversed that trend (thanks, Senate Republicans).

Still, proposals for further supporting higher ed must be put in context of our overall needs and duties. Legislators have to balance priorities within the context of our financial constraints – even when they’re advocating for good ideas.

That’s why now is simply not the right time for two intriguing ideas that I nonetheless have reservations over. Some legislators are pursuing free community college and free tuition for dropouts who are very close to finishing degrees. Those issues deserve discussion, but it’s hard to make the case in the current environment that they’re necessary.

State tax revenues are growing robustly, but that new money needs to go toward finally meeting the state’s McCleary mandate to K-12 schools. It’s not called our “paramount duty” for nothing. Meeting this duty has not been easy for legislators. That’s why, realistically, new tax dollars need to flow to K-12 right now.

“Free” has costs
Advocates for these bills seem to realize that. The cost of the close-to-graduating bill is small, but free community college for all would take a real investment ($200 million+ per biennium) that is needed elsewhere right now.

State Sen. Pramila Jayapal (who is running to replace Jim McDermott in Congress) somewhat acknowledged that, saying “We’re going to need to make sure we have that discussion in the context of a budget that is substantial,” i.e., when the state has more money to afford it. Of course, we know how Sen. Jayapal would prefer to make the state budget more “substantial.”

While recent tuition reductions are a step in the right direction, totally free community college raises some concerns. Generally, the perceived value of a good is reduced when it’s provided for free. There is also likely to be some overutilization of some classes, since they cost the student nothing, by some who are not on a clear path to a degree.

Having to pay at least some of your own tuition costs has a way of sharpening those plans. Simply making community college free without instituting reforms to that will help students attain a degree or certificate is not a wise use of public funds.

It’s an interesting conversation, but in light of what the Legislature needs to do, it’s a sideshow. These ideas belong on state government’s wish list, not among its top priorities.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.