Making Community College 'Free' Will Harm Serious Students

A well-intentioned plan is one of the worst ideas in the governor's new budget given the real-world effect it will have on California students.


It took nearly a dozen years after graduating from college to pay off the student debt I accumulated to get my degree—and that was in the days when tuition to a private university was around $5,000 a year including room and board. I've been through the college-shopping process with three daughters and have looked at asking prices of nearly $50,000 a year at some universities, so I understand the importance of affordability. It's depressing thinking of kids getting their start in life with college loans the size of mortgages.

Given that reality, it's also easy to understand Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget proposal that would provide California residents with a "free" second year of community college along with the provision of additional Cal Grant funding for parents who are struggling to put their children through college. This is well intentioned, but is one of the worst ideas in the governor's new budget given the real-world effect it will have on California students.

The idea of a free college education goes back to California's earliest days. As recently as 1960, the Master Plan for Higher Education reaffirmed "the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be free to all residents of the state." Shortly after that, the state university systems began charging tuition—and prices have soared as demand has outstripped supply and the legislature cut back on subsidies. As a matter of policy, it's a good idea for people to pay for the things they use. If you want an education, you need to pay for it.

Even with a tuition-based system, the University of California and California State University systems are overburdened given that they offer a better deal than most private alternatives. There's been progress, but it can still take six years to get a degree at a Cal State campus. Many students who cannot get the classes they need at "impacted" campuses.

In all aspects of life, the price mechanism is the best way to assure the right balance of supply and demand. If, say, the government mandated that car dealers slash the price of new cars by 50 percent, buyers theoretically would be able to get a cheaper car—but they'd take a number and wait a long time to actually get one.

Fortunately, California has an incredible system of 115 community colleges. Students who want a good education without saddling themselves with debt can get those first two years of courses inexpensively before finishing their degree at a college or university. In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that provided free tuition to community colleges for state residents who were attending college on a full-time basis and first-time students. They only had to pay some ancillary fees. Newsom's plan would do the same for that second year. Advocates point to a "skills gap"—the need for Californians to get a better education to fill the needs of the work place.

Community college already is dirt cheap, at $46 a credit. Making it free will only assure that people who aren't particularly serious about getting an education will take up space in sought-after classes, thus making it tougher for others to get into their preferred classes. This sounds harsh, but people unwilling to invest $1,100 a year in their own education perhaps ought to find something else to do. There is nothing like spending one's own money to force people to take the coursework seriously.

There are many ways to come up with that relatively small amount and the state already waives fees for the poorest students. And adding additional student aid through Cal Grants will help some people pay for four-year universities, but one of the reasons that college tuition has soared well beyond inflation – and beyond the prices of most consumer goods—is that the aid itself is inflationary.

Back to the car analogy. The average transaction price for a new vehicle has topped $36,000. If the government decided that cars are so important that it was going to provide a $10,000 subsidy for their purchase, you could guess what would happen. Prices would climb given that buyers would have a lot more money to use as a down payment.

The same principle is at work at universities. Tuition has soared and so have debt levels. Easy government loan money has kept universities from making tough spending choices. Unfortunately, it's hard to break out of that spiral. Universities cost a lot and students who want to attend need to find a way to pay. More debt becomes an easy short-term answer.

The community college system remains the blow-off valve—a way to enable Californians to get a quality education without amassing debt or further burdening the state university systems. It sounds counterintuitive, but making those colleges "free" will only make it tougher on the people that this proposal is supposed to help.

This column was first published by the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at