David Briceno: Free college is not free
“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
— Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), dropout at 10 years old due to inability of family to afford further schooling
There’s good news for certain new Sierra College students registering online for the fall semester that starts Aug. 26. Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with the state legislature, recently made it possible — through Assembly Bill 2 becoming law — for new students not to have to pay tuition to attend community college.
It applies to not just Sierra College, but also to all other 113 community colleges in California.
So, for those who qualify, enrollment fees are waived. Both college-bound California residents with no prior college experience and new high school graduates all qualify. A few other conditions must also be met to be eligible but there’s a catch. And it’s worth singling out.
It has to do with a simple fact: free tuition implies free college, and free college isn’t free because someone has to pay for it and/or other things related to attending either now or later — except if a student attends school under a full-ride scholarship, or even if someone else foots the bill, or if any financial aid money received doesn’t have to be paid back.
Otherwise, college isn’t free even if the tuition may be.
Not charging tuition may offer incentive for prospective students to enroll, but the No. 1 problem with the misnomer “free college,” and why it’s so misleading, is that it doesn’t cover any of the costs of living expenses. Tuition-free doesn’t mean everything-free. Living isn’t an optional course in college. It requires money to survive. And to make it to graduation day, living expenses must be paid while attending.
Tuition-free college won’t pay the bills. Working does. Financial aid does. So it means in order to attend community college requires either a job or a loan or both (or something much worse: having to live longer with the parents).
Even though the cost of tuition gets covered, students are forced to pay for their own textbooks (mostly overpriced and often numerous at universities), school supplies and other necessities. In addition, “free” community college students must also pay the health center fee, student center fee, parking fee(s) if needed or transportation costs, among other fees.
So, obviously, it costs money to get a college education, even if it’s a supposedly free college. Without any necessary financial resources available — not being able to afford college — taking out loans to pay for college isn’t just an option, it’s an absolute necessity.
Borrowing has been the route most commonly taken in order to afford college. Lending is widespread. Thus debt.
In fact, 70% of all graduates who have borrowed for college are in debt from one or more student loans. To most student loan recipients, debt is a four-letter word whether in or out of an academic institution. The bad news is that graduating all too often depends on going into debt, which explains the 70%. To be or not to be in debt is the question. But no question about it, student loans are a big factor in considering college. How so?
In a July CNBC combined poll 58% of people considering college answered student loans are worth taking out, but not if it means taking on too much debt. So, debt size matters. And if it absolutely comes down to having to borrow to pay for college, only one in five believe student loans are worth the price. And 18% of those polled said it’s just not worth the price at all.
So, student loan debt stymies higher educational opportunities for many young people. But something else much worse. The result of not having a college education can be detrimental to an individual’s future since graduating from college is becoming more and more necessary for social and economic advancement in society. Just having a high school education nowadays doesn’t go far like it used to. More education is now required to obtain goals in life, better quality of life, and higher socioeconomic status.
New students should be extra cautious about taking on any loan debt. Almost 45 million borrowers have racked up nearly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt with high default rates. Tuition-free may be enticing, but debt’s lurking right behind.
To be or not to be in debt is the question. Students get to answer that question in college along with many others.
David Briceno lives in Alta Sierra.
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