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One professor's case against 'free' college tuition

Awaiting Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature is a General Assembly bill, deemed a “compromise,” that would enable low and middle-income students to attend community college in Maryland with no tuition costs.

This effort is part of a national trend borne of a number of motives: to relieve students of significant borrowing debt as well as to enact a political expedient to win the votes of young people — typically a low turnout constituency that votes on the left. Part of the reason that young people tend to vote Democratic is that outside of those who work and those who serve in the military, their politics are generally not informed by investment in American public policy.

The arguments against “free tuition,” however, are manifold. First and most obvious, “free tuition” is not free tuition; it must be paid for, and the public will have to pay for most of it.

There are some variations across the country in what politicians mean by free tuition, including full subsidization of tuition for all means-tested awards, and the inclusion of room and board and fees.

Nationally, in the 2016 election, Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders supported “free tuition” for students at public colleges and universities. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who never supported such a policy before the 2016 presidential campaign, simply adopted Mr. Sanders’ position. Estimates of the cost of Mr. Sanders’ plan averaged around $75 billion annually. To paraphrase the late Everett Dirksen — one of the great Republican Senators of the past who was moderate, reasonable and worked with Democrats — a billion here, a billion there; pretty soon, you're talking real money.

Politicians want to start with making community college tuition free and work from there to do the same for all public colleges and universities. Mr. Sanders proposed that a Wall Street speculation tax would pay for two-thirds of his plan. That would upset none of his soak-the-rich allies.

Private schools use endowments, and public schools could do so as well. In fact, this should be an advantageous capitalistic competition.

Other objections to free college tuition include those of Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University. In 2018, he wrote in Forbes Magazine:

“ …[T]here are three problems [with free tuition at community colleges]: the poor academic track record of community college attendees, the potentially very negative economic growth implications from financing so-called free college, and even some fairness issues.”

He raised issues of student retention (citing National Student Clearinghouse data showing that 47 percent of community college enrollees drop out, while only 27 percent graduate); engagement (he says data show completion rates drop when students don’t pay— i.e. have a personal stake — for their tuition); and a playing field that’s less than even because free tuition goes “to the academically marginal student entering community college, while her academically superior but perhaps financially similar status classmates face significant tuition charges at four years colleges.”

Gov. Larry Hogan, speaking to my persuasion class this month, indicated that he understood the need to address the problem of exorbitant student debt but was ambivalent concerning the effect such government spending would have on Maryland as well as the consequences “free tuition” would have competitively on four-year colleges and universities in Maryland.

The governor’s speech at Towson University emphasized his continuing “bipartisan message,” but he did not mention the pending issue of his signing for “free” community college tuition until I asked him about it.

One hopes that the state of Maryland would recognize the governor’s sincerity in bipartisan leadership without demanding that he go a bridge too far by making community colleges’ free tuition the cause of significant financial and educational regression.

Richard E. Vatz (rvatz@towson.edu) is professor at Towson University and Author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model” (McGraw-Hill, 2017) and the co-editor of “Thomas S. Szasz: the Man and His Ideas” (Transaction Publishers, 2017).

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