Free Community College- Equalizer or Polarizer?

by Nicole Dugan

President Obama announced a plan to offer two years of free community college to all students in the United States. As could be expected, there are people coming down on both sides of the proposed plan. Is this plan, which is clearly intended to ensure that everyone receives higher education in some form, the equalizer that the government intends for it to be? Or, will it serve to further polarize the population?

The Theory of the Wage Gap

You have probably all heard at least one “rags to riches” story. Whether it’s your great-grandpa or your friend’s uncle- you’ve heard the story of the highly motivated hard worker who toiled away with nothing but a High School Diploma and some good old fashioned common sense, but he made it big. Success stories such as these are the dreams America is built on, but sadly, they rarely happen anymore.

Since the 1970s, the earnings gap between college grads and non-college grads has widened significantly. One theory surrounding the wage gap is the polarization theory, which holds that as computers were introduced into the workplace, the need to hire employees to perform routine tasks lessened. Therefore, the number of medium-pay jobs available to people with high school level or some college education decreased. The decrease in available jobs heightened competition for the dwindling amount of routine jobs and for jobs that were analytical in nature. More often than not, when competition for a role was high, the job went to the more highly educated individual. This competition led to more and more individuals seeking college education in order to land higher-paying jobs.

College has almost become a necessity in the US, but decreased public funding and higher demand caused tuitions, and student loan debt, to surge. Many fear that college is becoming a luxury for the wealthy.

A Level Playing Field or an Uphill Battle?

When you look at the polarization theory on its surface, the idea of leveling the playing field  through free community college makes sense. Giving more individuals access to higher education means that more people can land higher paying jobs. Interestingly, Free Community College could also mean a large decrease in student debt which could lead to more investing and saving among younger generations. Students can save money attending free Community College for two years and then apply to a more highly acclaimed institution to finish out their education- essentially cutting tuition costs in half.

The problem now is the number of available jobs. The number of highly educated individuals will increase, but the number of high paying jobs available upon graduation will remain the same. Will companies look more favorably on students who have four years of education from a premier University than those who take advantage of free community college? This could serve to further exacerbate socio-economic differences among students and job seekers.

Another issue is cost. As mentioned above, the cost of education has skyrocketed and giving aid to students in the form of two free years of schooling could potentially cut down on tuition and student loan debt. However, if many students take advantage of free education, both Private and Public Colleges and Universities will experience a loss. How will they make up for this loss? Will they need to increase their tuition costs or decrease their faculty to compensate for lower enrollment? This could decrease the quality and return on investment for college education, while potentially decreasing the number of faculty jobs available.

Nevertheless, the cost of education in the United States is an issue that needs to be addressed. Perhaps the better solution is to work on lowering costs at Colleges and Universities so that more students are economically able to attend, rather than offering just 2 free years of community college. What do you think is the best way to cut down on higher education costs?