Biden Wants to Make Community College Free. It's a Terrible Idea | Opinion

Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously quipped that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Someone should let President Biden in on this bit of wisdom.

The president's new $1.8 trillion "American Families Plan," which he touted in Wednesday night's address to a joint session of Congress, includes a proposal to make two years of community college "free" for all Americans. Of course, this really means that taxpayers will pay for your associate's degree, to the tune of $109 billion. As Friedman noted, there's no way to get anything without something in exchange, so we have to weigh any benefits from Biden's proposal against the costs.

And the cost-benefit analysis for "free" community college fails. Miserably.

For one, Biden wants to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. While tuition prices at four-year colleges are indeed absurdly high (you can in large part thank federal meddling for that), community college remains quite affordable. According to the College Board, the sticker tuition price at the average two-year public community college for an in-district student is $3,770. But it's even less than that for students who qualify for existing grants and financial aid, which cover nearly all the expenses.

How can anyone look at these figures and seriously conclude that community college isn't financially accessible? Any taxpayer dollar spent funding "free" tuition at community colleges is better spent addressing more urgent problems or, better yet, left in the taxpayer's own wallet to begin with.

But there's an even bigger problem with free community college schemes than their inefficient use of taxpayer money. Biden's plan would likely worsen the already abysmal graduation rates and academic outcomes plaguing many of our two-year colleges.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than four in 10 students who enter community college ultimately graduate with an associate's degree within six years. That's right: Roughly 60 percent of students end up dropping out or otherwise not completing their education.

Does that sound like a good taxpayer investment to you?

joe biden black voters 100 days
Black organizers gave President Joe Biden's first 100 days in office a B and a C-, largely because of his lack of progress on voting rights and police reform. Biden makes remarks in response to the verdict in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin at the Cross Hall of the White House April 20 in Washington, D.C. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

And there's reason to think that bringing in blank checks from Uncle Sam could actually worsen poor academic outcomes; making community college free with no change to the four-year system would lure a small but not insignificant number of students away from pursuing bachelor's degrees into lower-performing two-year schools that typically see worse outcomes for graduates.

Meanwhile, research shows that college students with financial "skin in the game" tend to work harder and get better grades. (Although it does paradoxically show that parental support somewhat improves graduation rates.) Still, the plight of community college students wouldn't truly be helped by encouraging academic standards to slip even lower.

Some proponents of taxpayer-funded community college would inevitably argue that it would build human capital and stimulate economic growth. In other words, taxpayer money would get a good return on investment. But is that actually the case?

Economics professor Richard Vedder doesn't think so. Greater community college attendance is more likely to reduce than enhance economic growth, he explained in Forbes. "Raising taxes on private sector earnings to fund colleges lowers growth because the output reduction associated with higher taxes on the highly efficient and market-directed competitive private sector is far greater than any positive effects of more education administered by less efficient and market disciplined higher education providers," writes Vedder.

The economic argument for "free" community college schemes doesn't add up. But there's one final, fundamental objection to the plan: College students are legal adults, and pursuing a degree is an investment decision they make to earn more money in the future. Because community college is, in fact, already affordable, it's perfectly reasonable to expect young adults to pay for their advanced education themselves, not stick taxpayers with the bill. That would include the millions of taxpayers who have no college degree at all, incidentally.

President Biden may earnestly believe that government investment in "free" community college would help more Americans find a path to success. But it's easy for politicians to spend other peoples' money. For actual taxpayers, the cost-benefit analysis on subsidizing community college just doesn't make sense.

Of course, there are plenty of things the government could do to help poor people and expand opportunity to more Americans. Politicians could instead fund school choice programs and give families the freedom to choose the best public or private K-12 education option for their child. This would boost test scores, graduation rates, and other educational outcomes that help set students up to land college scholarships and reach higher on the economic ladder. Or, we could use the billions in revenue Biden wants to spend on community college to reduce payroll taxes that erode working families' paychecks and undermine their ability to send their kids to college.

Expanding opportunity is a noble goal. But the cost-benefit analysis on subsidizing community college just doesn't make sense.

Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is Policy Correspondent for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The views in this article are the writer's own.