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Since Dylan Matthews wrapped up his series on college costs, his closing suggestion about making community colleges free has been making the rounds on Twitter.  

The argument is straightforward enough.  Community colleges are low-cost feeders to higher levels, as well as respected and popular sites for occupational training.  Making them free would provide an incentive for more people to go, thereby saving money as against more expensive options.  It would strike a blow against student loan burdens, and would greatly simplify the financial aid process.  And to the extent that it made it easier for low-income students to attend, it would be consistent with the “access” mission for which community colleges exist.

But I’m wary.  It looks like a trap, or, at best, a slow-motion disaster.

The most basic issue is where operating funding would come from.  As unpopular as tuition and fees are, broad-based taxes are even worse.  That’s why the last few decades -- and especially the last five years or so -- have seen a dramatic shift in funding from states (and, in some cases, counties) to students.  Giving up that tuition/fee revenue would place community colleges entirely at the mercy of state legislatures and economic cycles.

Secondly, and relatedly, the source of most financial aid is the federal government.  (States have some, and private scholarships help, but the feds are the major players.)  Operating aid to the institution comes mostly from the state, but financial aid to students comes mostly from the feds.  That means that replacing student-pay with state-pay would dramatically increase the cost to the state, all else being equal.  I’ll use my home state as an example, just to keep things simple.  Massachusetts taxpayers pay both state and federal taxes.  If Massachusetts were to base community college funding entirely on state dollars, then Massachusetts taxpayers would carry a double burden: they’d carry the entire cost of their own colleges, while also paying taxes to subsidize the financial aid for colleges in other states.  That’s a tough sell.  (The same basic argument holds in states that share costs with counties or districts.)  

There’s also a basic definitional question. Are we only talking about the credit-bearing side of community colleges, or also the non-credit side?  Would corporate training be free?  Personal enrichment classes? Adult basic education? In many places, the funding for adult basic education badly lags demand, with significant waiting lists as a result.  

History and politics offer reasons for concern. Certain public colleges started out free.  CUNY was famously free until the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s, for example. But that’s my point. Fiscal crises will happen, one way or another.  When they do, colleges that are entirely dependent on state funding will suffer even more badly than they do now.  Political winds shift; even if a particular governor is wise, well-meaning, and far-sighted, there’s no guarantee that the next few will be.  Worse, to the extent that going tuition-free makes community colleges look less like colleges to the public, and more like K-12 schools or social service agencies, it’s easy to foresee the political fallout.

Colleges’ incentives would shift in predictable ways.  California’s example is useful here.  California’s community colleges aren’t “free,” but they’re remarkably inexpensive by national standards, and what little tuition they collect doesn’t go towards operating budgets.  So when enrollment growth threatens to outstrip appropriations, they can’t grow their way out of trouble.  Instead, they shrink.  They run fewer sections of necessary classes, establish waiting lists, and charge students in the form of time, rather than money.  Not coincidentally, for-profit providers have swooped in to fill the void.  If you can’t control income, but you can control expenses, then controlling expenses is exactly what you do.  

If we want to make community colleges permanently affordable, and sustainable, the first thing to do is to get health care costs under control.  I’d also love to see long-term commitments to slow, steady growth in operating funding -- the health care savings could cover that -- and some national support for “best practices” studies in structure and administration.  In my perfect world, we’d even look much more seriously at competency-based credentials, and at serious efficiencies in financial aid and ERP systems.  But we wouldn’t just throw up our hands and declare that it’s all free.  We just don’t have the political culture to make that safe.

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