A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that 53 percent of Golden State adults believe that tuition-free community college should be a priority for the next governor. With the state reporting major cash surpluses, the incoming administration might be inclined to act. But zeroing out the cost of junior colleges won't save California students much money and will only encourage waste and inefficiency in the state's bloated higher education bureaucracy.
California residents pay only $46 per credit to attend community college. Full-time tuition and fees add up to about $1,200 annually. Students can earn that much by working just a few hours each week, gaining job experience, and honing their time management skills in the process. Furthermore, $1,200 is just the sticker price: lower income students receive financial aid packages that often exceed their tuition.
Peralta Community College District, which operates four campuses in Alameda County, reported revenues of $270 million for the 2016-17 school year to educate 15,768 full time equivalent students. This works out to $17,000 per student. But net tuition and fee revenue amounted to only $19 million and was more than offset by $38 million in financial aid expenses. Most of the district's income came from state and federal subsidies as well as local property taxes.
And Peralta district voters are willing to give more. Last month, they approved an eight year extension of a parcel tax to provide continued operational funding and an $800 million bond measure to improve district facilities.
So taxpayers are already investing a lot in community colleges, but what are they getting? Only 30 percent of California community students graduate or transfer to four-year schools within six years of enrolling. Low educational attainment rates are, in part, the result of community colleges accepting students who are not ready for higher education: about 80 percent of new enrollees require some form of remedial education. Encouraging more unprepared students to enter the system through the offer of free tuition would likely reduce success rates even further.
While student preparation plays a role in poor educational outcomes, mismanagement at the institutions themselves also contributes to the problem. Although Peralta receives $17,000 to educate each student, much of this money is diverted to administrative staff and potentially misappropriated. Despite lower enrollment, the district added 23 administrators between 2012 and 2017. Meanwhile, both the district's spokesperson and the chair of its citizen oversight committee stepped down from their positions and issued complaints about waste and corruption at Peralta.
Unfortunately, the problems aren't limited to just one district. In 2013, City College of San Francisco nearly lost its accreditation largely due to financial management issues. Last year, California's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found unsustainable fiscal conditions at Santa Barbara City College and Victor Valley Community College District.
Before throwing more money at these districts, state leaders should insist that they be more tightly managed. Meanwhile, legislators could save students money at no taxpayer cost by ordering community colleges to replace expensive textbooks with free online instructional materials. According to an online calculator provided by the state's community college system, the estimated annual cost of books and supplies is greater than in-state tuition. Although the system has piloted a "zero-textbook-cost degree" program, it could be doing more to save students from having to buy latest edition textbooks and accompanying study guides.
"Tuition free community college" might be a great meme, but as a policy it leaves much to be desired. Current tuition costs are so low that they are not a meaningful barrier to attendance for serious students. Zeroing out tuition risks attracting more unserious students, driving down graduation rates and driving up the amount of tax money being wasted at these institutions.