Message from SCICU President and CEO Jeff Perez –
The “free” community, or two-year, college initiative has gotten a lot of attention since it was included in the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act.
But are “free” tuition and fees at two-year colleges really free for South Carolinians?
It’s certainly not free for the American taxpayers who foot the $45.5 billion projected cost of the program. Moreover, it’s not free for the taxpayers attending other types of colleges and universities. They end up paying for two tuitions. And do we want to provide free two-year college tuition and fees to students regardless of how wealthy they are?
Offering “free” two-year college tuition and fees also deprives students of the freedom to choose the college or university that best fits their needs. Congress has rightly focused on student-based financial aid programs, like the Pell Grant. By picking one sector – two-year colleges – for special treatment, Congress would be compelling economically disadvantaged students to attend a college that doesn’t necessarily suit their needs nor match their aspirations.
“Free” two-year college is certainly not free for state governments who must provide 20 percent of the costs by the end of the five-year program. But that’s not all: A study by the State Higher Education Executives and Officers Association (SHEEO) reports that in the first year of the program South Carolina, where the cost of two-year colleges is greater than the national median, would have to increase funding by about 17 percent.
And, as I mentioned, “free” two-year college is a five-year program. States that commit to it may find that federal funding has dried up at the end of the program, leaving them having to foot the entire cost.
Rather than create a new, unproven program with all sorts of strings attached, why not just double the Pell Grants and permit qualifying students to select the college or university of their choice?
Doubling Pell would free students of debt. According to a report from the Gender Equity Policy Institute, students receiving the maximum grant would realize a whopping 78 percent reduction in student loan debt!
Now, let me stress the technical colleges in South Carolina do a commendable job preparing their students, and those students deserve some help. Doubling the Pell Grant program would have the beneficial effect of rendering those colleges tuition-free for qualifying students.
Let’s suppose that the Build Back Better Act manages to get passed. The legislation does give states the chance to opt out of its “free” community college component. That’s one freedom South Carolina should exercise.