Free College: Marketing 101 or Mythology 101

President Obama recently proposed America’s College Promise, free community college to qualified students.  Great marketing, even greater mythmaking.

I recently reviewed the 2015 budget for John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois; a similar budget would be at found at hundreds of similar U.S. community colleges.   It is a complex document full of nooks and crannies, but in order for John A. Logan College to be “free” someone has to provide $46,655,318 for JALC to meet anticipated spending for next year.  If such a gift were provided it would have to cover $14,560,000 in tuition and fees, $3,964,233 in Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) credit hour grants, $7,394,685 in ICCB equalization grants, and that’s half the ticket price of opening the doors at JALC.  A long way to go from there to free, and I didn’t include the $6,240,000 in property taxes paid by residents of the district.

Consternation concerning President Obama’s proposal is present on several fronts. First of all, perhaps appropriately so, this “free” education is only available to people within certain income brackets. It is also free only after every possible source of funding has been utilized, Pell Grants for example, and students are required to be enrolled half-time, which eliminates over half of those who attend community college nationally as they manage families and work. In addition it is only available for certain community college programs. Valid or not these qualifiers are part of “The Promise.”

And not to take the shine off the stone, some locales already offer such opportunity. The City of Chicago, and more recently Tennessee, provide a similar benefit. President Obama’s plan positively captures a larger audience and is available to students regardless of age.  The average age of the community college enrollee is 29 compared to college freshmen at 19, a decade gap that defines a primary purpose of community colleges in reaching nontraditional students.  Most current plans are only available to traditional age college attendees.  In all cases “free” only applies to the student, who under other circumstances would pay tuition and fees.   And sometimes “free” is not everything it’s cracked up to be. For example, high school graduation rates from “free” public schools are poor.  The national average is 81% and the range, from Oregon at 69% to Iowa’s 90%, is wide.

The idea of free college is not new. Currently, students who perform well in high school have the opportunity to gain academic scholarships. If they work hard and show athletic prowess, intercollegiate athletics provides support.  Also, while increasingly difficult given increasing costs, a student who works diligently in high school, in summertime and during breaks, is able to pay a significant portion of the cost of college through sweat equity. But this is old news you say. That may be the case, but there are many colleges where students can attend absolutely free, although they have to work. Berea College sets a benchmark. It is essentially free for anyone who wants to work. Alice Lloyd College, also in Kentucky, pays all the tuition but requires students to work 10 to 20 hours per week in order to pay the balance of fees. The College of the Ozarks should be on the list too.  The Hechinger Report has a compilation of “free” schools.   Almost all of these free colleges require work, or outstanding academic abilities, but some are clearly oriented towards students who want to work.  No Smoke, No Mirrors.  Now I say these are free, but they are not. The students must work, a requirement missing in “the promise.”  In fact talk to any intercollegiate athlete and find out the “cost” of a “free” ride.  It makes a 15 hour-a-week job look like a cakewalk.

And, an entirely new breed of enterprises offers free enrollment.  The Kahn Academy, Coursera, edX, and many of the nation’s elite private universities offer Massively Open Online Courses, MOOC’s taught by some of the best minds in the world absolutely free. Completion rates in these courses are less than 10%, but they are there for anyone willing to invest the time and energy. Of course neither time nor energy is “free.”

My mother always told me that the best things in life, contrary to the theme of a popular movie of her generation, are not free. And that proverbial utterance, “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch” used by Milton Freidman to entitle his economic text on opportunity costs is economic truth, rather than civic chimera.

The certainty of a college education is this:  No matter who says what to whom, it always costs something because it requires individuals to change themselves, and elementary Newtonian physics teaches that change requires work i.e., energy exerted over time.   A free lunch, a free ride, a free spa visit, a free watch, a free education, anything for free: all marketing, all myths.

Here is a gold plated certainty, no myth, no marketing: Free education is an oxymoron.

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