ICCC leader sees issues with ‘free’ college

Friday, September 8, 2017
Will student debt woes face Iowa to consider following the free community college trend? / Photo: Economic Opportunity Institute

“Free college” is the current rallying cry around the country, with four states so far passing free community college systems and others debating the concept.

However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, says Iowa Central Community College President Dan Kinney, who is skeptical about Iowa following this political trend.

“It’s important that students have some skin in the game,” he said in a Pilot-Tribune interview. “Students wouldn’t value education as much if it were given away. If it’s free, why put the time and work in to be successful, you wouldn’t be losing anything.

“If you give a young person a car, chances are they won’t take care of it as well as if they had to use their own money for it,” he said.

Iowa’s direction should be on how to keep college affordable and accessible, Kinney suggests. That is the draw for places like ICCC - a recent study showed that Iowa community college students are completing their studies with average student debt of $2,800.

“I still think that’s more than we would like to see, but it’s low compared to the $100,000 or more for a lot of kids at some four-year universities. I know plenty of people who are just now getting their student loans paid off after 20 years, and there are others who are making monthly payments that are equal to house and car payments,” Kinney said.

Iowa is one of the country’s most “tuition heavy” systems for funding public colleges, he says, while other states depend more heavily on taxpayer-funded contributions.

The ICCC leader said he has been researching the free college implications, anticipating dialog on the issue in Iowa.

“To be honest with you, what some states are doing seems to work well, and in others it’s not so good. In some they are just saying, ‘Oh gosh - we had no idea of the expense we are getting ourselves into.’”

In the case of ICCC, free tuition would bring a flood of students the college simply is not ready for, he believes.

“If we suddenly had 2,000 or 3,000 more students coming in because tuition was free, it would be a mess. Not only would we need to build dorms in Fort Dodge and Storm Lake and Webster City, we wouldn’t have the classroom space to even offer the classes that commuter students would demand,” Kinney says.

What most states are considering “free” really isn’t that, he says.

Instead they are often “last dollar” systems. The students must apply for financial aid through all the traditional sources, a “family contribution” may be applied based on family income, and then any remaining tuition would come from a different source.

“It is not truly free, although they are presenting it that way, and that is causing a lot of confusion out there,” Kinney says.

“If we suddenly had 2,000 or 3,000 more students coming in because tuition was free, it would be a mess...”

States may also be jacking up taxation to cover the cost, he said. “Some are struggling,” he says of states like Tennessee, Oregon, Rhode Island and New York that have already passed some form of “free” community college.

“I know that in Tennessee it brought a big rise in enrollment and they are having a hard time offering the classes,” Kinney said.

In a time of tight budgets, all is not smooth sailing for the state’s community colleges.

“Our board is facing money issues every time it meets. We took another budget cut this year,” Dr. Kinney said.

“I think in the next year Iowa is definitely going to have some conversations. I wish I could say there is a perfect model to go on, but I don’t think it exists yet, especially when it comes to free-tuition college.”

He has another idea, and says it is already working in Storm Lake - have future employers pay for their workers’ education.

ICCC in Storm Lake has partnered with Tyson Foods in such a pilot program, and it is going well, Kinney says. The industry needs its workers trained, the workers need a way to get educated. “They are adult learners. They have bills to pay,” Kinney said.

He feels this is a model that ICCC and other colleges can follow.

“In many cases people really only need a year or two of training. In this case the workforce is almost paying them to go to school. I think we will see more and more businesses doing this. Within our region still have a lot of jobs that are open,” Kinney says. “In the next five to 10 years I believe we will see some big switches happening in college education. In fact, there will be interesting things starting to happen in the next year or two.”

Currently, due to limited funding, ICCC has no building projects in the works, only maintenance and renovation.

However, Storm Lake’s industrial training program is growing rapidly and needs more space. Kinney said he has looked at some available buildings. ICCC hopes to have an announcement within a couple of months and some upgrades by next academic year.

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