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PORTLAND, Ore. – Nothing sparks consumer demand like the word “free,” and politicians in some states have proposed the idea of providing that incentive to get young people to attend community college.

Amid worries that U.S. youth are losing a global skills race, supporters of a no-tuition policy see expanding access to community college as way to boost educational attainment so the emerging workforces in their states look good to employers.

Of course, such plans aren’t free for taxpayers, and legislators in Oregon and Tennessee are deciding whether free tuition regardless of family income is the best use of public money. A Mississippi bill passed the state House, but then failed in the Senate.

The debate comes in a midterm election year in which income inequality and the burdens of student debt are likely going to be significant issues.

“I think everybody agrees that with a high school education by itself, there is no path to the middle class,” said State Sen. Mark Hass, who is leading the no-tuition effort in Oregon. “There is only one path, and it leads to poverty. And poverty is very expensive.”

Hass said free community college and increasing the number of students who earn college credit while in high school are keys to addressing a “crisis” in education debt. Taxpayers will ultimately benefit, he said, because it’s cheaper to send someone to community college than to have him or her in the social safety net.

Research from the Oregon University System shows Oregonians with only a high school degree make less money than those with a degree and thus contribute fewer tax dollars. They also are more likely to use food stamps and less likely to do volunteer work.

A Gallup poll released in late February found 94 percent of Americans believe it’s somewhat or very important to have a degree beyond high school, yet only 23 percent of respondents said higher education is affordable to everyone who needs it.

As at four-year universities, the price of attending a community college has risen sharply because of reduced state support and higher costs for health care and other expenses. The average annual cost of tuition nationally is about $3,300, and books and fees add to the bill.

It’s cheaper than university, but expensive enough to dissuade someone who’s unsure whether to pursue higher education.

Tennessee and Oregon are looking at the “last-dollar in” model, where the state picks up the tuition not covered by other forms of aid. Because students from poor families often get their tuition covered by Pell Grants and other programs, the state money would disproportionately help those from more comfortable backgrounds.

“If you’re paying for two years for everybody, then you’re paying for students whose families can afford to do it,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas. “And is that your best use of dollars within the public interest?”