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Op-Ed: The Obama ‘free community college for all’ idea is doomed to fail

Would you go to community college if it were free? According to the Huffington Post, community colleges across the country might soon be free if president Barack Obama gets his way. At Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, the president is slated to unveil his ambitious plan. While preliminary details are sparse, the proposal could affect up to nine million people, cost billions of dollars, and be eligible to students who maintain a “modest” grade point average.

Free community college for all U.S. citizens? The ramifications on both K-12 and higher education would be immense and the proposal will likely shake up the coming 2016 presidential election season, forcing both Democratic and Republican presidential contenders to explain where they stand on the issue. Fortunately for Obama, the proposal is not without precedent: Tennessee offers free community college for all students. Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed reports that both Oregon and Mississippi have also proposed the concept of free community college.

But what works in Tennessee, Oregon, and Mississippi might not be as financially or infrastructurally feasible in larger states like New York, Texas, and California.

As a high school Economics teacher, I oppose the concept of free community college for all. While I support tuition-free community college for qualified students who maintain a decent grade-point-average, I worry about the financial burden imposed on taxpayers by hordes of underprepared, apathetic students. I also worry about increasing grade inflation at the high school level as administrators try to get slackers “over the hump” and into free community college, worried that they will be criticized for preventing students from taking advantage of free higher education. I worry about the physical and financial strains on both four-year universities who lose thousands of applicants and community colleges whose admission rolls swell tremendously.

Taxpayers will be on the hook, to at least some degree, to pay the tuition and fees for the millions of community college students who will benefit under this Obama initiative. As a middle-class public servant, I do not wish to have my tax burden increased to benefit many students whose lack of drive, talent, and preparation might squander my hard-earned money. While this may sound cruel, it is undeniable that many of the community college students taking advantage of free higher education will drop out before earning any degree or credential, wasting thousands of dollars in tuition. Taxpayer dollars will be wasted unless we can ensure that the free community college only goes to students who are likely to succeed.

From teaching high school seniors, I can attest that a great many are unlikely to succeed in college without rampant grade inflation.

Speaking of grade inflation, this detestable phenomena will only increase at the high school level if community college is free. No longer able to rationalize that apathetic and underperforming high school students would not be able to afford college anyway, school administrators will be under increased pressure to graduate everyone. “How could you fail __________ and deny him the chance to go to college?” will be the angry public outcry. With cost no longer an issue, the ability to attend college falls squarely on high school grades…placing unfair pressure on high school teachers and administrators.

And, if community college tuition is free, what incentive do high school students have to earn good grades to pursue scholarships and stipends? Teachers and administrators will be under increased pressure to inflate grades while high school students simultaneously feel less incentive to perform. All they need is the minimum passing grade…and college is free! As a result, many students who go from high school to community college will be even less academically prepared for higher education.

How will schools handle the rapid changes in student population? Many four-year universities will undoubtedly see their student populations decrease as students decide they would rather attend community college free of charge. Most community colleges, conversely, will see student demand soar. Public universities may be on the hook to pay to maintain underutilized facilities, wasting public money, while community colleges may be forced to rapidly expand, also draining public money. Essentially, the shift in college students will force taxpayers to fund double the college infrastructure.

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