College Affordability: Free Tuition Misses the Mark

Policymaking is problem solving.  Our principles and priorities come together to find solutions that make life better for all Americans. Truthfully, our nation’s higher education system is in need of some real problem solving. Skyrocketing costs are pricing lower and middle-income Americans out of the market.  And, many who graduate do so with insurmountable debt.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s latest higher education proposal falls short.

The President’s approach provides two years of free community college to students who are enrolled at least half of the time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make progress toward completing their program.  Federal funding would cover three-fourths of tuition, with participating states expected to contribute the remaining funds.  This model is based on a successful program championed by Governor Bill Haslam called Tennessee Promise. While it’s great to see state leaders innovating and figuring out what works for folks in their communities, a successful program in one state doesn’t translate into a successful Federal program everywhere.  The President’s approach sounds a lot like an old solution to a new problem. One size does not fit all.

The plan, deemed “America’s College Promise”, fails to address one of the biggest issues facing college students: cost. Shifting responsibility from individuals to the taxpayer will not cut costs. There is no incentive to make college more affordable.  Further, the President’s plan only includes tuition at community colleges.  What about for-profit schools and four-year institutions? When the Federal government picks winners and losers it cuts off innovation and shuts down ideas.  Let’s pull good ideas from every corner. We should be in the business of empowering individuals and states.  It’s time to modernize the Federal role in education, not expand it.

House Republicans understand this.  Last Congress we passed two laws that addressed student concerns.  Chairman Kline of the House Education and Workforce Committee took action on the issue of college affordability when he authored H.R. 1911, the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act (P.L. 113-28).  Signed into law in 2013, H.R. 1911 reduced the costs of borrowing money for millions of students, making college more affordable.  Legislators need to also examine vocational training to promote on-the-job skills in a modern economy. The House took action on H.R. 803, the SKILLS Act (P.L. 113-128). This legislation has helped workers get the skills they need to compete for jobs. In Indiana, my state implemented a program that raises the skill level of adults to meet workforce demands by changing education services and adding basic occupational training opportunities.  Too often, young people have difficulty finding a job, or at least a good paying one to start their journey in life.

Tuition should never be a barrier to going to college, but removing that barrier and passing it off to the taxpayer is not an answer to our higher education problems. We need to pursue meaningful reform that addresses admittance to every higher education institution, promotes college affordability, and offers necessary support to ensure students graduate and get a job.  Today’s challenges deserve more than yesterday’s solutions.

— Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN)

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