The quick answer is no, and I’ll explain why in the following. I’ll start by saying that there’s no such thing as a good or service that is “free.” There’s an acronym that my economics teachers taught me, TNSTAAFL (pronounced “tanstafle”). It stands for “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” What is meant by this is that there’s always a cost for any good or service.
In this case, the “free” should read “from taxation.” Everybody in our society pays for it. Whenever the government pays for something, it doesn’t use its own productive capacity, it uses the productive capacity of the citizens of the country. The “government” doesn’t pay for anything, people do. So no, it’s not free. Also, most would agree with the following: we should all be careful with our money (taxes) and invest it wisely. Let’s see if Community College (CC) is a good investment for taxpayers.
The first argument against CC is that people will fail to take their “purchase” of education seriously. If the cost is zero for the student, she has no skin in the game, and therefore her risk is substantially reduced. The only thing she’s risking is her time, and she may or may not consider that valuable. People in the post-high school age group tend to have an abundance of time and low income, so it follows that the value placed on their time is relatively low, meaning that they aren’t risking much if all they have to commit is a few hours daily. And we don't have to speculate on this because there is proof. Community college is already heavily subsidized by local, state and federal taxes, and so the cost is already quite low as compared to other public and private institutions. We can already see the effects of such subsidies by looking at the track record of CC students.
This can be clearly seen here http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/data-watch/sd-me-data-loanrepayment-20160914-story.html. To spare you the need to click through the slideshow, I’ll just tell you what it says. The community colleges here in San Diego have a completion rate that seems to hover around 20%. A quick glance at the nationwide stats linked in the article show a similar pattern elsewhere. What this means is that 80% of the funding (by both the students and taxpayers of course) that goes toward community colleges is mostly wasted. I say “mostly” because I’m sure the students get some value out of it, but they certainly aren’t getting degrees, and so they aren’t going to be able to put that on a resume and use it to find employment or to get into a 4-year school. It's a huge waste of money by any objective standard, and that really hurts the case for making it zero cost for students.
Next, we have the effect of hiding costs in economics. In a normal scenario, supply and demand in a market dictate what the price will be. Generally speaking, as demand goes down, so will prices, and they will both rise together as well. Conversely, as supply increases, price will tend to go down, and as supply decreases, price will tend to go up. When you hide the price of the good or service, this decentralized self-regulating system of pricing breaks down, and the tendency becomes that prices will increase unchecked by supply and demand over time, because all of the information about value is hidden from buyers.
So what we see when the government subsidizes education in current markets, is that it tends to drive prices up. The costs are hidden to students and taxpayers alike, and so as educators raise their prices, it doesn’t tend to have any negative effect on demand for the service they provide. The following chart shows that nominal median household income has increased marginally in the US over the past several decades, and that inflation adjusted income has actually decreased:
This next chart shows that college tuition and other fees has roughly tripled during the same period, meaning that it has increased by roughly one and a half times:
This is all during a period in which recent graduate employment rates are down, showing that the value of the education provided (return on investment) has actually significantly decreased. See the following: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-class-of-2015/
This is one of the many government programs that have “good” intentions, but generally speaking, they achieve the opposite of the desired or stated goal. The value provided for students by the education system has gone down, costs have gone up, and the burden on students and taxpayers has commensurately increased. These programs were supposed to ultimately increase the wealth of students and therefore the nation, but any claim to that effect would be dubious at best. When left to their own devices, people are very creative about educating themselves and their children, and they are very effective as a result. Would we have a less valuable workforce in the United States if post-secondary education wasn’t subsidized? There’s a lot of evidence in the above that the opposite is true. As we've piled on the subsidies and taken the cost away from the students, they seem to be getting less out of it as time goes by.
Finally, there’s an argument from a moral standpoint against doing this. You see, not everyone who gets taxed would like for college education to get subsidized by their money. If these people were to choose to refuse paying taxes as a protest, what would happen to them? Police would knock on their doors, not so nicely I might add, and they’d be ultimately locked in a rape cage for a very long time. Irwin Schiff for one recently just died in prison after over a decade there for doing exactly that. And if these people like Mr. Schiff were to decide to resist arrest when the police came (they do hold the moral high ground mind you), there’s a high likelihood that they’d be simply shot dead. Is your Community College degree worth kidnapping or even murdering people for? Because that’s the threat that’s being held over their heads unless they pay. Taxing someone, even for a seemingly good cause like youth education, is fundamentally no different from holding a gun to someone’s head and demanding that they pay you, or kidnapping them and extorting money from their family in exchange for their safe return.
Free community college is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. It’s not actually free. The lack of risk to students increases their failure rate, and therefore increases wasted time and money for them and taxpayers. The lack of transparent pricing disrupts the supply and demand curve by hiding costs, so prices increase without a reduction in demand, exaggerating the wastefulness of the subsidies. Subsidizing education is an objective failure. We should actually decrease them and eventually eliminate them altogether based on just utilitarian reasons alone. This is in addition to the moral case against forcing others to pay your way. Most people who understand the reality of that situation would agree that we shouldn’t be going around committing armed robbery or kidnapping to pay for our education.
Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/money-dollar-bill-paper-one-dollar-1273908/