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April 15, 2019 Editor's Take

Expanding free community college wrong-minded

The free college debate has heated up in Connecticut this year as lawmakers look for ways to reduce the debt burden students face after graduation.

The conversation is a worthy one given that U.S. college graduates now own $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt, which serves as an anchor on the economy, preventing young adults from buying a home and making other major purchases.

One of the focus areas in Connecticut has been further subsidizing students who attend two-year community colleges.

While the policy has good intentions, it's misguided.

That's not because the notion of tuition-free higher education is a bad thing. It has its merits and can be used by states as a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining young talent.

The issue is that the community-college system itself is highly inefficient.

The Hartford Business Journal recently reported that the effective drop-out rate at Connecticut's public two-year colleges is 50 percent, a staggering number. While achieving success in the batter's box half the time would make a Major League Baseball player an all-time great, it's a failing grade for the community-college system.

The high dropout rate exists despite 44 percent of community-college students in the state — or 22,000 pupils — already going to school tuition and fee-free, thanks to federal aid and other assistance targeted at low-income residents.

We should not be further subsidizing such poor outcomes, or throwing more students into the system.

A recent report by the Office of Fiscal Analysis said a bill that would eliminate tuition and fees for even more community-college students in the state could cost taxpayers as much as $10.6 million within the first two years.

Instead, the focus — both financially and strategically — should be on getting more currently enrolled students to finish their degrees.

Some progress has been made in recent years as graduation rates at some schools have been improving.

But it's a major challenge given that community colleges often enroll non-traditional students who come from lower-income backgrounds and often face financial and other hardships.

Many students must work and/or take care of families as they pursue their degrees. Finding the time to balance those competing interests has proven to be too big of a challenge for many pupils.

Even Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which oversees the state's 12 two-year colleges, agrees that expanding free community college to more residents isn't a great idea, at least right now.

Instead, he recently told HBJ that more money should be invested in things like academic and financial advisors for students. The current advisor-to-student ratio at CSCU's community colleges is a paltry 900:1. Is it any wonder why so many students have a hard time navigating and completing their studies? These are students who need more support than the average pupil, not less.

At the same time, the CSCU system itself has been in financial turmoil for years, currently facing a $20 million deficit despite recently deciding to raise tuition 5 percent at the state's four regional universities.

Ojakian has supported a major consolidation to wring out administrative costs from the system, but his plan has faced severe backlash from unionized faculty and others.

Of course, the exorbitant costs of the higher-ed system itself — including salaries and benefits of administrators and professors — are the reason tuition at Connecticut and other U.S. schools is so high to begin with.

Offering free tuition at state schools will simply embolden Connecticut colleges to spend more — without being held accountable for student outcomes — knowing costs will be absorbed by a larger pool of taxpayers rather than cash-strapped students and their families.

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