Gov. Gina Raimondo recently proposed giving state residents two years of "free" tuition at Rhode Island public colleges. Her proposal is similar to two others: former President Obama's plan for "free" community college and Bernie Sander's plan for four years of "free" public college.
All three initiatives share three things in common: they shift the financial burden from the primary beneficiaries (students) to taxpayers, do nothing to address college quality, and do nothing to address the underlying cause of tuition inflation.
The governor calls her proposal a "drop in the bucket," but given its $30 million estimated price tag, not every Rhode Island taxpayer would agree with that characterization.
Under her proposal, students could attend community college for two years, tuition-free. Those who wish to complete a four-year degree would have their junior and senior years tuition-free.
The proposal is not as good as it may sound. For starters, the state already heavily subsidizes community college education for low-income students. The average Pell Grant award is virtually the same as the average cost of attendance at community colleges. More than half of those currently enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island pay no tuition.
In many instances, these students get what they pay for. Nationwide, community colleges have a relatively dismal track record of putting them on the path to upward mobility. Fewer than 20 percent of community college students finish their program within six years. Removing all financial burdens from those students will not likely encourage higher completion rates.
Students pursuing bachelor's degrees also have a serious non-completion problem. Most students now complete their degree in six years. Offering two years of free tuition coupled with generous loan forgiveness programs essentially removes any financial responsibility from the student. As we have seen from the past, such policies only lengthen a student's time spent in school and hurts taxpayers who must pick up the tab.
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Essentially, "free college" proposals will simply hasten the deterioration of quality education. It is a common observation that graduate school is the new college, and college is the new high school. This pattern is bad news for American taxpayers and students alike.
More than one-third of college freshman must now take remedial courses. (At CCRI, it is much higher.) Policymakers should focus their efforts on reforming the K-12 system to prepare students for college and make higher education truly "higher." Offering additional years of taxpayer-funded schooling will likely only worsen the problem of credential inflation.
Policymakers would also do well to address the underlying cost of college tuition, rather than try to paper it over with even more taxpayer money. Overwhelming evidence suggests that the federal government's takeover of student lending is doing more harm than good. Unfettered access to federal aid discourages universities from keeping prices low and competitive.
Instead of offering students free tuition, policymakers in Rhode Island and around the country should consider restoring the private lending market. This policy would encourage universities to compete for students, provide a high quality product, and keep prices affordable.
Unfortunately, "free" college addresses none of these issues and simply puts a Band-Aid on a very serious problem.
This piece originally appeared in Providence Journal