The Deeper Costs of “Free Tuition”

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This parent’s reaction to the passage of “free tuition” for the Community College of Rhode Island sums up a great deal of what’s wrong with this policy approach, in a WPRI article by Susan Cambell:

Lynn Stephen’s daughter, Savannah, just graduated from Cumberland High School and plans to attend the Community College of Rhode Island in the fall.

And because of the new Rhode Island Promise scholarship program signed into law last week, Savannah’s tuition will be free.

“It’s like hitting the lottery, really,” Lynn Stephen said.

She goes on to give some reasons that it will be more helpful for her family than it would be for a family with more money, but that’ll always be true for everybody benefiting from any policy.  The implication that government should be generating lottery winnings for our families is what’s objectionable, dragging us into dependency.

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Worse:  One periodically sees stories about how lottery winners’ lives go wrong after their wins, and that’s true on a lower level.  I mentioned in passing, this morning, my conversation with a tree cutter who can’t find any employees.  He told me he pays $15 per hour for the workers on the ground pulling the clippings away and $30 for the climbers.  I also mentioned, this afternoon, the guy who thought an electric car would be affordable, until he found that he wouldn’t be getting a $2,500 rebate from the government. But for the rebate, he wouldn’t have bought the car.

Just so, if the promise of $4,000 in free college draws a student away from a job cutting trees for two years, the cost in lost salary for that student would put him or her $62,400-$124,800 behind the game at graduation, not to mention lost experience.  The same dynamic applies if he or she decides not to work part time to cover tuition because it is no longer necessary.

I went to college out of high school and was aimless, so I dropped out and sold fish off a truck for a couple of years.  With that experience for motivation, I went back to college with a renewed focus and motivation.  I’d seen the alternative and made a conscious decision to change direction.  Some people stick with those sorts of jobs because they seem to be a fit.

Especially in the demographic of students who would tend toward community college in the first place, this freebie could actually be harmful in the long run, although nobody will ever be able to prove it, and no politicians will ever have to face the blame.

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