The Meaning of Free

By Deborah Frankle Cochrane From Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick to Democratic Presidential Candidate Chris Dodd, the idea of making community college "free" has been thrown around quite a bit recently. College tuition is getting too expensive – so the affordability problem is solved, right? Wrong. We're glad that people are thinking about ways to make college affordable, but like the music club that offers you ten "free" CDs but charges an arm and a leg for shipping and handling costs, these proposals aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Average annual college costs at a community college add up to more than $12,000 after you factor in books, transportation, room and board, and other expenses (College Board). Tuition charges, which would be eliminated by these "free college" proposals, are only 18% of costs for a typical community college student (or only 4% in California, with the largest community college system in the country). While no college student would turn down free tuition, the price of textbooks and other educational expenses could leave students scrambling to cover the costs of "free" college. The reality is that a student drawn in by the promise of free college is less likely to consider and apply for federal and state aid. After all, who needs aid to go to college if it’s supposed to be free? They may think they’re already receiving aid. A needy community college student with grant aid to cover tuition plus other expenses is likely in a much better position than the same student with free tuition, but no extra aid. The message of "free" college is attractive, and we’re glad that national leaders are getting serious about making college affordable. But false promises can be hurtful if they serve to get students in the door without a way to succeed. The best way to make college free is to address true student costs and financial need by investing in financial aid for those who can’t afford it.

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