A Few Thoughts About Free Community College

We’ve been hearing for years now about the possibility of federal legislation that would provide for “free community college,” or two years of tuition-free post-secondary education at community and technical colleges across the country. Let me start with a fun fact: the institutional underpinnings of what is today Fox Valley Technical College dates all the way back to 1912 and it wasn’t until 1975 when students were charged tuition to attend. So there were many decades of our history when there was no student tuition. Everything old is new again! For most good jobs and longer-term career opportunities some type of post-secondary education beyond high school is important – whether a certificate/diploma, apprenticeship, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or graduate degree. While employers look for general attributes in candidates, they’re also looking for individuals with some type of specialized skillsets at a depth or level that typically requires post-secondary education.

To be competitive as a state and as a nation, we simply must continue to build the expertise of our workforce and the intent behind free community college comes from that realization. So, from my perspective, this is well-intended and there’s little question about the need for educational attainment. And this proposal would certainly be very beneficial to students, although we need to remind ourselves that tuition is just one part of a student’s cost to attend college.

However, as the old saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.” There is much to watch for on this front, including unintended consequences.

  • If the federal government requires a state match of any kind in such an initiative, I think it’s unlikely that the Wisconsin Legislature would support it.
  • How would this funding level be determined when there are vast cost of attendance differences among community and technical colleges across the country? For instance, technical college equipment, technology, and the fact that we hire most of our faculty and staff from their respective industries/occupations result in far higher operating costs than a typical community college.
  • Would this funding flow directly to institutions or to students?
  • Would this actually attract more students? We’ve found that our Foundation’s College Promise program for low-income students and families (which covers tuition and more) has simply not been subscribed to by recent high school graduates at near the numbers we’d like to see.
  • How would this impact students’ choices in programs or colleges and will those choices better align with the real employment needs of communities?

See what I mean? The devil is in the details and we will all need to stay tuned should this well-intended concept develop further.

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