How would free college work?

First Lady Jill Biden is reviving an idea, hoping a rebuilding of the economy during her husband’s administration will include free access to community college and training programs.

She is right, of course, that education and training will be essential both to digging out of the slump created by the pandemic and diversifying state economies. But her push is light on specifics.

“We have to get this done. And we have to do it now. That’s why we’re going to make sure that everyone has access to free community college and training programs,” she said in taped remarks broadcast Tuesday during a virtual legislative summit hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges.

President Joe Biden promised as a candidate that there would one day be two years of community college or training “without debt.”

One has to wonder how the Bidens plan to pay for all that. Average annual tuition and fees at a community college cost $3,730 during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Associated Press. To put that figure in perspective, the average expenditure per pre-K through 12th grade pupil in the U.S. was $12,612 per year, in 2018, according to U.S. Census data. States were responsible for an average of 46.7 percent of that cost, however.

So what is the Biden administration proposing? Do we want the community and technical colleges to become part of the public school system, and be funded partly by the federal government and partly by the states? Given some of the failings of the public schools, and feedback from those in higher education who suggest they spend much of a student’s first year working on remedial education, that might not be the best idea.

What about students who, having finished their free two years, wish to pursue a four-year degree? Will their credits be good enough to transfer? Are there eligibility requirements for receiving the free education? Does it apply to adult learners as well as recent high school grads?

Lawmakers must ask a lot of questions, should this plan ever reach them.

“(Community colleges) are our most powerful engine of prosperity,” Jill Biden said.

Perhaps so. But as wonderful as the idea sounds, the devil is in the details; and right now, we don’t have any.


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