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Money & Ethics

Do We Owe Students Two Free Years of College?

Using taxpayer funds to help young Americans get post-secondary training of some sort would be money well spent. The challenge is figuring out how to do it most sensibly.


Q. My friend and I disagree about the proposal for universal free tuition for two years of community college—the ethics, cost and benefit to society. How do you view it?

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A. First of all, let’s not call this proposed program “free.” It might not cost the students anything, but it wouldn’t be free to the taxpayers who would fund it.

As for the ethics of it: Remember that every new governmental entitlement ever proposed—whether it was universal public elementary and secondary schooling in the 19th century, Social Security (funded by a tax on employers and workers), or "free" health care for the poor (Medicaid)—was promoted as an ethical imperative for a compassionate society. An ethical case, however valid or lame, can be made for virtually every governmental expenditure.

Let's focus instead on whether this would be a cost-effective way to improve the capability of the American workforce, which is an important goal in a competitive global economy. Well, at an estimated cost of $60 billion over 10 years, maybe it would be—but maybe not.


First, it needn’t be a new federal entitlement. The states—which, sadly, have been cutting their commitment to their public colleges—could do this their own way, as Tennessee and Oregon already have and more states are contemplating. So could counties and cities, which operate most community colleges. (Chicago started its two-years-free program last year.)

Perhaps community colleges should focus on reducing their very high dropout rates rather than filling their classrooms with even more high school graduates. And a smoother transfer path to public four-year colleges is needed, too.

The federal government's Pell Grant program already makes two years of community college virtually free to poor students, and it could be enlarged to benefit middle-class students as well.

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Young Americans definitely need post-secondary training of some sort—if not at a four-year college, then at a vocational/technical school, community college or apprenticeship—to earn a decent living. Using taxpayer funds to help them do so would be money well spent. The challenge is figuring out how to do it most sensibly.