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.
  • Jeanne Large

    Nothing is free but some things we don’t invest in are lost opportunities. When the Washington State Constitution was written, a quality K-12 education was essential for getting into the workforce and earning a living that could support a family. Today, we have many great jobs that pay well and could help people live sustainable lives…..but many of these jobs require more than a high school degree. We need to think and live in the present and invest in the education our children and neighbors need. This includes at least Community College.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m very willing and able to invest more in public education than I’m being asked to. This sort of investment has a very positive return. We need well trained people to do important well paying jobs that companies are having trouble filling.

    • scooter

      You can put 50% more in to the K-12 system tomorrow, and the results will be the same as this time last year with the exception some WEA members will have hit the jackpot.

    • Malby

      Invest in K-12. Community college is often just high school redux.

  • Priscilla Schmidt

    I think there is a rational middle ground regarding free tuition at community colleges. There are some students who waste their school years; they never study, skip classes, and generally waste the taxpayers money. It’s commonsense that only students who have proven that they are seriously ready to study should be given free community college tuition.

    If the people who wasted their childhoods can prove to society that they have changed – if they get a job and are good, dependable workers – then after two years or so we could give them a test run with one free CC class.

    Perhaps it’s time for our public schools to adopt the British system where those students who can’t pass a test showing academic readiness for high school are transferred to classrooms where they get a more trade oriented hands-on curriculum. If they do well in that curriculum, they could choose to go on to a free related program at the community college.

    As a teacher, I see lessons being dumbed down, even at the elementary level. It’s time we individualized instruction in elementary schools to encourage success. Unfortunately, the union is not a proponent of individualized instruction because individualization requires teachers to think analytically and creatively. That takes a lot of time so there have to be smaller classes and more teachers. There’s no money left for higher wages. Sure, the union bargainers always talk initially about smaller class size but the issue usually drops off the table and higher wages and benefits is all they hold out for.

    Teachers would enjoy their work more, be more fulfilled, if they could actually see failing kids turn into successful, motivated students. Most teachers go into teaching because they want to help make the world a better place, not because they’re expecting a big salary. However, if we can reduce by half the failing kids, we will have that many more taxpayers and that means more money in the state treasury for funding schools.

  • BillBurnett

    Programs like Running Start, where capable and motivated K-12 students get community college level classes paid for by the K-12 system, are about as close to “free” for them as is realistic, because nothing is truly “free”. However, providing tuition-free college level classes after students have graduated K-12 on any large scale is unrealistic, partly because the WEA K-12 unions will never truly be satisfied they have enough $$, no matter how much revenue is pumped into the K-12 system.

  • bonnied50

    There is one family, couple who are NOT married, living together, and have 2 children together….have made “going to college for free” their mission to stay on welfare, not work, and have free college as their career. Each of the adults recieve full grants each quarter. How this couple is continuing staying at the Community College level without moving to a University, continue changing their career goals. There is a hole in the system….

  • Greg

    Great analysis, Rob. Thank you for your leadership to keep Washington’s schools and universities strong!

  • Malby

    Frankly, the notion that everyone needs a college degree is wrong-minded, and the idea that people should pay hard cash for some community college courses (race and gender “theory,” for example) is just plain stupid.