Californians Want to Make Community College Free

That's a terrible idea.


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Wave Break Media Ltd/

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.

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  1. Maybe the state should think about saving for those unfunded pension liabilities instead of giving away more free shit.

    1. That is what I was thinking.

      1. Same here. However, no politician ever won votes by looking ahead and saving money for future liabilities. Giving away more free shit, however, will get you a lot of votes now. Future liabilities are for some future politician to worry about.

  2. I like this idea and encourage the State of California to embrace it wholeheartedly.
    Of course, I live nowhere near California and look forward to enjoying the show.

  3. California will likely be the first bankrupt state in the United States of America.

    General-Purpose Local Government Bankruptcy Filings: 9
    — City of Hillview, Ky. (Dismissed)
    — City of Detroit, Mich.
    — City of San Bernardino, Calif.
    — Town of Mammoth Lakes, Calf. (Dismissed)
    — City of Stockton, Calif.
    — City of Harrisburg, Pa. (Dismissed)
    — City of Central Falls, R.I.

    County bankruptcy filings:
    –Jefferson County, AL
    — Boise County, Idaho (Dismissed)

    1. I think Cali can kick the can for much longer as a State. Sure it’ll add up from the smaller governments at some point. The state of Illinois is struggling to pay bills now, and is bigly underfunded on several pension funds.

    2. Illinois could get there quicker.

  4. It’s great that $1,200 a year buys you the on-going status of College Student, and living with your parents isn’t something that anyone should be ashamed of, even if you are in your forties. Education is important. After all, it prepares you for getting more education. As a bonus, you don’t count as unemployed, thus making the stats for your demographic look better. I look forward to further enhancements in this area so that gifted students can extend their college life until they are eligible for Social Security. There’s also the added benefit that postponing adulthood indefinitely will mean that this cadre also postpones parenting, making this, unlike welfare dependency, a single generation problem.

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  6. I wonder if the poll gave responders any information at all about the financials. I’m guessing no. I would think that if a person is asked the question, “Should community college tuition be made free?” One would get a very different response than if they asked “Should community college be free despite the fact that it’s already affordable and mostly paid for anyway?”.

    In the absence of information, it’s a reasonable response for most people to answer yes to the first question.

    1. How about: “Should community college be paid for out of your taxes, as public schools currently are?”

  7. Great! The Last thing we need is more free handouts!!!

  8. This is a classic “Big Government is good and it is here to solve all your problems” argument. I live in California, and it is lovely, and warm, but we are taxed, taxed, taxed… And the state loves to regulate, regulate, regulate… The new news is that they want preschool for all. Though only free if you qualify… Which means if you have a job you get nothing, or taxed… or get a tax break for the preschool but that we tax everyone more to make up the difference. And this community college idea will be no different. Currently, the community colleges are currently very subsidized, excellent, and anyone can get in. Though many students waste their time and fart around taking remedial or easy courses so they can look busy to their clueless parents, My son is at RCC and is taking his Engineering pre-requisites, not farting around, and the fees are cheap. It doesn’t need to be free.

    1. When he gets to a university he can enjoy the frustration finding out they only offer one instance of an upper level course he needs for graduation but a dozen instances of each remedial class.

    2. If a person needs remedial classes, then taking remedial classes is not a waste of time.

      And good for your son! Glad to see your family using our education system.

  9. I was surprised to see that my old school (Camden County College, in NJ) is above $100/credit hour now. I recall it being around $35/hour back in the 80s.

    Of course the schools I attended after that are all over $1.5K/hour now, so still a good deal.

  10. And then they’ll wonder why attendance at “paid” universities sudden drop and propose throwing more money at the problem…

    1. Most community colleges do not offer bachelors degrees. So, if you want to continue your education, you have to transfer.

  11. Statistics on how many out-of-state and out-of-district students attend are hard to come by. Since the legislature removed the out-of-district tuition bump, districts have marketing departments that try to lure out-of-district students, because they get paid by the state, just like K-12 ADA (average daily attendance), for each FTES (full-time equivalent student). There’s no incentive to graduate them or move them on. California community college districts are just a vacuum sucking money from the state and the in-district property owners. Nobody buys property based on which community college district its in. Because the students are all adults, parents do not care much what the district does, so there is zero local oversight. The CCDs are promoting all the free stuff, like College Promise, to raise attendance for the money. The CCD’s win the bond and parcel tax elections by funding election campaigns with tax exempt donations from their 501(c)(3) foundations and mandatory associated students fees. Can you say money laundering? It’s a racket in the R.I.C.O. sense of the word.

    1. Out-of-district tuition bumps make no sense if you want to minimize bureaucracy and maximize student mobility.

      Out-of-state students pay a lot. And I think that is unfortunate too. We ought to make reciprocity pacts with other states, waiving out-of-state tuition for students from their state just so long as they waive tuition for students from our state.

  12. I volunteer as a math tutor at a community college near Seattle, and a few years back they decided to try out an “open source” precalc textbook.
    It was awful. It was disorganized; the graphic layout was almost non-existent, and the graphs and equations looked like something a middle-schooler might produce.
    The simple fact of the matter is that producing a good textbook (a math textbook, at least) is HARD. It takes a lot of work not only from the author, but from the graphic artists and proofreaders. Does Stewart of the calculus books fame make a ton of money issuing a new edition every year or two? Sure. But the fact is that the Stewart books are GOOD.
    Anyway, we abandoned the open source textbook and went back to the commercial ones. You can generally find a fairly recent edition pretty cheap online or at the college bookstore.

    1. Well, once there is a single high quality open source calculus textbook, you can kiss Stewart goodbye. The fact is, the “state of the art” in calculus does not change very quickly. Tweaking here and there has value, but not much beyond a certain point.

      If Steward calculus books were a stock, I would short them.

    2. I learned pre calc from a textbook that was a reprint from something probably pre WWII. Looks like it was reprinted by the Russians, with how cheap the paper was.

      I think the calculus books we used were all decades old too. Thomas? In college I went looking for older versions because they were more complete. Same with the physics books for AP Physics.

      When our cohort took the AP Calc exam, 80% got 5s.

      Textbooks are crony capitalism profiteering off of centrally planned child indoctrination centers. And don’t forget the eternal rent seeking of government monopoly copyright.

      With copyright terms as they were when the country started, and not extended 20 years every 20 years, there would be an infinite supply of great math books out of copyright, available for the cost of printing them. Or downloading them.

  13. Thousands of barely-motivated Californians will go through the motions of signing up for college classes, attending for a few weeks until it becomes too hard or gets in the way of their social life. They’ll quit with no financial repercussions to them (only to the state and the taxpayers), but they’ll sign up again the next semester and repeat the process.

    I do wish we could sell California to the Russians to make up for us getting a great deal on Alaska, with all that oil and moose. Or maybe we can just send them to France as a state-to-be-named-later in the trade for the Louisiana Purchase.

    1. That some people are not motivated or have life events that interfere with college is an argument against subsidizing it. Just not a very good one. The personal and social returns to education are extremely high.

      1. While I admire your optimism, you underestimate the willingness of people to walk away from something, especially if they don’t have a financial stake in it. And while my argument may not stand up to your scrutiny, it’s just one part of a larger argument that overwhelmingly suggests this will be a boondoggle. But my opinions should hold no weight to the willing taxpayers of California. In fact, I appreciate all the times the good people of that state have sacrificed various combinations of their money and freedom to prove something won’t work. Carry on, you foolish heroes!

  14. They do realize that the federal subsidies end after Calexit, right? These crazy Californians are always so close to Utopia, but just keep missing the mark somehow. No doubt more taxes and more regulations will get them there.

    1. California pays more in federal taxes than it receives in federal benefits.

  15. You can already get free community college with various waivers, etc if you are too poor to afford it.

    1. Why not expand such help to the middle class? And if a rich kid wants free community college classes, I am sure that their family contributes enough to the tax base to justify it.

      California has certainly made mistakes in the way it spends money. But paying for education has never been one of those mistakes.

      1. Exactly. There is a lot of misinformation and inaccurate assumptions in this comments section. The California CC system is one of the few excellent things the State does. At least in the district I’m in the college is top notch. The CC system is great for funneling students into the UC and State system. I’m not sure that the $46 per unit should be zero because it is affordable now but “free” is an odd idea. As a parent of four kids that used the system, I guarantee that I paid my fair share in taxes.

        As was pointed out, California does more than its share of stupid stuff. The CC system is not one of those.

  16. Community college students taking remedial classes? You don’t say! But serving people who need remedial classes is one of the points of having community colleges, not a failure of the system. People who complete remedial education are then prepared for non-remedial education. And even if they stop there, they are that much more educated and that much more able to take care of themselves and navigate life.

    The idea that people needing remedial education is a sign that we should support education less is only something a libertarian would conclude. In fact, the more people need education, the more we should provide it. People aren’t going to do well economically in the future without ever increasing education.

    I fully support tuition free community college in California. Educated people is why California is such a productive state. If the idea of helping people and helping the rest of society at the same time makes some libertarians cringe, I say, let them cringe.

    Libertarians ought to stick to fighting actual abuses of government power rather than trying to stick it to the disadvantaged.

    1. “In fact, the more people need education, the more we should provide it. ”

      The more government education fails to educate people, the more money we should throw into government education.

      “Libertarian Moment”

    2. True. While I consider myself to be a, little l, libertarian I am not opposed to efficient use of government. My issue with dropping the $46 per unit price to zero really is that there are more efficient ways to make access to CC easier. Most can afford approximately $1,500 a year or could work to afford it. It would make more sense to create an inventive system when you get the tuition rebated when you get an AA degree or certificate or make small tuition only loans that are forgiven when you get an AA degree or certificate. The other concern that I have is that the CA K-12 system is screwed up and the Community College system is not. Changing it too much might bring on the stupid deciding making that is so prevalent in K-12. But I do support anything, even government intervention, that assists the Community College system.

  17. The costs of higher education in California is probably covered by pot legalization. The high-speed rail thing, well…

  18. “Californians Want to Make Community College Free”

    Californians want to give boatloads of public cash to leftist propaganda machines.

  19. I essentially started three weeks past and that i makes $385 benefit $135 to $a hundred and fifty consistently simply by working at the internet from domestic. I made ina long term! “a great deal obliged to you for giving American explicit this remarkable opportunity to earn more money from domestic. This in addition coins has adjusted my lifestyles in such quite a few manners by which, supply you!”. go to this website online domestic media tech tab for extra element thank you .

  20. College is mostly a scam to put propagandists on retainer.

    For adults, let the state pay for accreditation testing and point students to online courses. There is infinite teaching material available already. Go to Khan academy.

  21. “Californians Want to Make Community College Free”

    Somehow I’m thinking it won’t be free for CA taxpayers.

  22. The more there is of something, the more it’s devalued. So it is with college degrees. MacDonald’s could soon require Ph.D’s. Among those without degrees, unemployment would balloon.

  23. “With the state reporting major cash surpluses, the incoming administration might be inclined to act.” If that is the case then they need to “act” on the 1.3 trillion state debt instead of free collegiate government indoctrination for a bunch of slightly post pubescent numbskulls.

  24. Many different educational institutions exist in the USA. Colleges in which students must study for two years, colleges in which students must study for 4 years, universities, schools and kindergartens are in the USA. Most of these schools are paid.
    As for me, paid educational institutions should disappear. Or the number of paid educational institutions should be reduced. Also, tuition fees in paid schools should be reduced. The number of students who have to pay tuition in a paid institution should be reduced too. How to do this? 1) Make the educational institutions free 2) Say that only 50 percent of students from all students will pay for an educational institution 3) Say that these 50 per cent of students will pay 50 percent of the price currently available for an educational institution! That’s all! It’s good that there are services like that proposes write papers for money but which do not make incredible prices for their services and help students for low prices with the same efficiency as personal teachers help. Tuition fees for personal teachers should be reduced too.
    In conclusion, I want to say that there are many smart and diligent students who deserve to be able not to pay for their studies.

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