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Op-Ed: Free Community College Bill is Bad for Kentucky

Free college education is a very popular talking point in the current campaign for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. This policy idea made its way into Kentucky this month when the Kentucky House of Representatives passed House Bill 626, which gives all students who graduate from Kentucky high schools the ability to attend community colleges free.

The bill passed by the House requires students to apply for all available aid and, once the student was admitted, the state would pay the difference in tuition for two years. The current projected cost of the program is about $20 million a year. The problem is that $20 million is just the beginning. Free college is not free. Webster’s Dictionary defines “free” as being “without charge.” The bill passed by the House most certainly is not “without charge.” This bill simply shifts the costs from students to taxpayers all around Kentucky.  

Kentucky is not the first state to propose providing free community college education to graduates. California has the cheapest community college tuition in the nation. The state provided free tuition and during the recession, California’s budget took a serious hit. By the end of 2009, community colleges turned away more than 600,000 individuals due to the inability to raise revenue.

I question what this would do to the number of students who attend community college. Could you in good faith encourage a high school student to start their college career at a university when they could begin at a community college for free and then transfer after two years? Furthermore, what message would House Bill 626 send to the numerous students who work hard to pay their way through college or decided that receiving an education would be worth the burden of student loans?

Instead of focusing on spending our limited resources on providing college to everyone, the Kentucky General Assembly should focus on ensuring that our current college students are receiving the best education they can. One way to do this is for the state to adopt an outcomes-based funding model that would reward successful schools. Currently, the Commonwealth spends nearly $1 billion annually on universities without taking into account a school’s performance. Thirty-seven other states already use an outcomes-based funding model, including six of our neighboring states. It is time that universities in Kentucky are also held accountable for the performance of their students. 

House Bill 626 is bad for students, bad for universities, and bad for Kentuckians. When it comes to college and students truly receiving the best bang for their buck, let’s keep the conversation focused on outcomes-based funding.

Senator Wil Schroder (R-Wilder) represents Senate District 24 comprised of Bracken, Campbell, and Pendleton Counties. Sen. Schroder is Chair of the Budget Review Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary, and is also the Vice Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is a member of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee and Senate Economic Development, Tourism, & Labor Committee. Additionally, Senator Schroder serves as Vice Chairman of the Northern Kentucky Caucus.