Should all public colleges—or all community colleges—be tuition free for all students?

There is an active movement among states to make community colleges tuition free. Tennessee was the first state to implement such a policy and the Obama administration proposed a related idea at the national level. Several states have followed Tennessee’s lead and New York recently passed legislation that will eliminate tuition for students from households with incomes below $125,000 at both two-year and four-year public institutions.

There are a number of problems with these policies. The central issue is that students don’t just need lower prices to succeed in college. They have to attend institutions that have sufficient resources to offer the courses they need, provide academic and social support systems, and ensure quality. Promising zero tuition is likely to limit the resources available to provide these important services, even as state funding per student has declined dramatically over time.

Another issue is that the state programs tend to be “last dollar” programs. They fill in the gaps between federal and state need-based aid and tuition prices. Many low- and moderate-income students already have their tuition paid through these need-based programs. So the extra dollars will just go to those whose incomes are too high to qualify for other aid. Unlike need-based programs that attempt to level the playing field, free college programs tend to provide equal subsidies to rich and poor alike.