'Free' college may be no bargain

Free tuition at community colleges sounds like a great idea, but local college officials know nothing is really free.

“Free sounds great if you’re a student,” said Ryan Purdy, Mid-Plains Community College president. “But from the taxpayer standpoint, the cost may exceed the anticipated outcomes.”

The college issued a response to President Obama’s announcement Friday of the America’s College Promise Proposal to make two years of community college free “for responsible students.”

Purdy said tuition makes up 20-35 percent of the general fund budgets of community colleges statewide, and those tuition revenues would have to be replaced by state and federal money amounting to tens of millions of dollars a year in Nebraska alone.

The White House likened the proposal to the free high school movement of a century ago, but said America has fallen behind the world in providing an educated workforce.

But the Mid-Plains Community College system has succeeded in making a college education accessible to “responsible” students already.

McCook Community College in particular has succeeded in a large part because of the generous support of private citizens — the Peter Dolores Graff Event Center as only the most recent example of a public-private partnership. Many of the other buildings on the MCC campus were provided through private donations — several from the same family or business associates.

“Our Mid-Plains Community College system prides itself on its accessibility, and probably more importantly, its affordability,” said Chuck Salestrom, area associate vice president of public information and marketing. “We have a wide variety of funding mechanisms in place to underwrite costs such as Pell Grants, scholarships and tuition waivers. If used correctly, a student can graduate here with little or no debt.”

And it’s not just MPCC or other community colleges. Collegebound Nebraska is already allowing more than 6,000 University of Nebraska students to attend one of four university campuses and while paying no tuition.

“Responsibility” is key to that program, which requires them to be a full-time Nebraska resident undergraduate student taking at least 12 credit hours per semester, be a Pell Grant recipient, maintain satisfactory academic progress, maintain a 2.5 grade point average and apply for federal aid.

MPCC and other officials are worried that federal dollars will carry red tape that will negate any advantage a new program will offer.

In the broader view, it does little good to provide a qualified workforce for businesses if the tax burden drives those businesses overseas, or out of business altogether.

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