My husband has enjoyed being a science and math tutor at Carroll Community College. We often discuss education-related topics, using Rich's experiences and insights as a springboard. Those things also inform this article.
Last year's presidential election featured proposals for universal free college tuition. New York's governor has advocated free tuition within his state's public university system. The idea has attracted favorable attention, given the high cost of college tuition, the burden of student loan debt and the need for a well-educated work force.
I think this proposal has too many negatives to be feasible. During economic downturns, states struggle to fund their university systems. "Free" tuition would be offset, no doubt, by substantial increases to room, board and other fees. Additionally, other government-funded programs would be forced to compete for increasingly tight dollars.
Furthermore, not all students thrive on a sprawling campus or in large "intro" classes. Some need help improving study habits and adjusting to the faster-paced, lecture-based nature of college coursework. The lure of free tuition, though, might cause students to rule out a smaller, private school or one addressing special needs such as learning disabilities.
Large private universities like Harvard have substantial endowments from which to draw for student aid, but smaller schools like McDaniel or Loyola would find it increasingly difficult to compete. Some may argue that there are too many colleges, and that closing some would eventually rein in the cost of college tuition. But a bigger school doesn't always mean better education.
Finally, while many people desire or require continuing education and training, not all of them want or need a four-year college degree. There's an alternative suggestion that takes this into consideration, and that mitigates some of the concerns listed above. Although I'm not 100 percent on board, I'm cautiously favorable to the idea of funding tuition at community colleges.
First: it stretches dollars. Granted, a lot of students attend community college, so a state's expenditure would still be hefty. But tuition is usually lower. It generally takes no more than two years of full-time study to complete most degree or certification programs. And since most or all community college students are commuters, less money is spent for housing and related services. Certainly, students' out-of-pocket expenses are considerably reduced.
Most community college campuses and class sizes are smaller than those of state universities. It's also easier to identify shaky studying skills or to offer remedial coursework.
Community colleges serve as an affordable way of getting basic "intro" college courses under one's belt before heading off to complete a traditional four-year degree, whether at a state or private school. But they also offer training and certification in a wide range of practical fields that directly benefit the businesses and services of a community as well as the students taking such classes. Courses range from occupational therapy to the hospitality industry; from vet tech certification to accounting; from calculus to cyber security.
Recent high school graduates for whom college represents a steep learning or financial curve, older students starting college while working and raising families, or any-age workers seeking to better their chances of being hired or promoted could all conceivably benefit from tuition-free classes at community colleges.
"Free tuition" is a relative term. Like any benefit, much of it would come out of worker's paychecks and corporate profits. But if the people, businesses and government of any state agree to take the enormous financial step of funding tuition for higher education, deeming it a valuable investment in their society and workforce, they'd do well to focus on the community college level. That may be the most prudent use of precious tax dollars, and provide a wide and positive impact on society.
Cathy Ammlung is a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church and a resident of Sykesville. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.