Going to college is no longer a rarity. Many can now comfortably afford college, and even those who can’t make ends meet, arrange student loans and scholarships. Of course, a large driving factor behind the increase in the number of college-attending students is that more and more employers in the job market seek degree-holding candidates.
There are limited opportunities with just a high school diploma. Though many high school graduates do go on to attend college, there is still a considerable number of students who do not. But a dearth in financial resources rather than a lack of desire to learn is often what drives this decision.
I’m certain that the two preeminent Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are advocating for free community colleges with such students in mind. However, believe it or not, a completely tuition-free community college could serve as a bane.
A low-income, first-generation college student told The Washington Post about his transformation as a student moving from high school to college. His grades remained low throughout high school, but as soon as he was in college, his GPA went up to a 3.3.
What caused this evolution? In college, the former student had something at stake. He had an investment. Skipping classes on the regular in high school probably didn’t affect the student personally, but in college, he was harming no one but himself.
I’m sure we all can relate. How many times have we groggily woken up in the morning, desperately wanting to skip that 8 a.m., but dragged ourselves out of bed with the $60,000 price tag flashing in our minds? Free tuition definitely sounds great, but it comes with an opportunity cost of its own. While tuition-free community colleges might be great at attracting students, there is no guarantee that every student will graduate and not drop out half way through.
This is not to say that the idea of free community colleges should be scrapped for good. There should be, however, other means through which incoming college students can be retained for all four years.
An interesting reality is that students who pay tuition are more likely to stay in college all four years. This is due to “sunk costs,” or the economic concept in which payments that have already been made positively influence someone’s likelihood of continuing a behavior. In this case, our semester tuition is our sunk cost. Once a sunk cost has been paid out, a commitment has been made.
This is essentially why Boston University has a graduation rate of around 84.5 percent. In regards to the policy of free community colleges, which is directed towards low-income households, the sunk cost doesn’t have to be tuition. It can be something smaller in amount — students can be asked to pay for their textbooks instead. Hence, while they can attend classes for free, this smaller investment will perhaps help retain more students.
Another plausible option is to cover all non-tuition costs instead — we can all vouch for the astronomical costs of textbooks and housing — and have students pay for tuition.
All in all, community colleges are a great option to invest in. The concept of free community colleges is pleasing, but the future consequences of such a decision must also be considered. Tuition-free college with strings attached sounds less appealing, but might be more beneficial in the long term.