Don’t Trap a White-collar Worker in a No-collar, Tanned, and Toned Body

Line of diverse college students in front of an American flag background with thumbs upAccording to my mother, I announced at the age of 4 that I was going to be a writer. I don’t remember that, but I do know I have been carrying a writing utensil and pad of paper in my pockets since I was 7. Despite that, I didn’t embark on a career as a professional writer until I was nearly 30.

What made it finally possible? A tuition-free community college education.

I grew up in a hopelessly blue-collar family on New York’s Long Island and entered the workforce in the landscaping industry at age 15. For a variety of reasons, when I graduated high school a college education was out of financial reach for me. New York’s community colleges were just too expensive—and forget about a university. I took a class here and there, but I did not pursue it full time or with an intent to receive a degree.

On Oct. 4, 1978, fate stepped in and literally slapped me upside the head. My head was pinned between a skip loader and a dump truck in a horrific work accident. I was 24 years old and came within inches of dying. Realizing my mortality, I took the settlement money and set out on a cross-country round trip the following spring. I wanted to see California before fate took me from this planet for good.

Twenty years later I left California as a professional writer with a college degree. Without the tuition-free college education, I probably would have remained a white-collar worker stuck in a no-collar, tanned, and toned body. See how lucky I was?

There are some very good arguments against universal free community colleges. But in my humble opinion, they are misguided and lack analysis.

Here are some of them:

It costs taxpayers too much: This is the big one, Elizabeth. Among those making that argument is Dr. Monica Herk, vice president of education research at the business-oriented Committee for Economic Development, writing in the Wall Street Journal. I agree, Dr. Herk. Free education isn’t free. Somebody has to pay for it.

But there are ways. Clearly, waste exists in the federal budget that can be used to educate our populace. For example, the Affordable Care Act was passed with the promise that it would drive down medical costs—or at least insurance costs. But according to conservative writer Christopher Chantrill, federal spending on Obamacare will increase by $320.4 billion over the next five years. That’s $64.08 billion a year. Cure Obamacare’s ills and we have more than five times the $60 billion in federal funds President Obama budgeted over 10 years to pay for 75 percent of taxpayer-supported community colleges. And don’t even get me started on the F-35 fighter jet. Fifteen years and $200 billion over budget, not a single plane has been put into service.

Even if there wasn’t waste to be found, education is a sound investment that will produce good-paying jobs, which produces taxpayers, which increases taxes in our federal, state, and local coffers. And, as it turns out, a community college education is a very sound investment. The non-profit organization College Measures reported in 2013: “In Texas, graduates with technical associate’s degrees earned on average over $11,000 more in their first year after graduation than did graduates with bachelor’s degrees. Graduates with career-oriented associate’s degrees in Applied Sciences out-earned their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees in Colorado by more than $7,000 and in Virginia by more than $2,000.”

College Measures only studies five states that track graduates. Of the five, only Arkansas saw bachelor’s degrees outpace associate degrees in first-year earnings. Blue state Oregon and red state Tennessee both recently instituted tuition-free community college education for their high school graduates just because they recognize how it can boost their economies. Tennessee calls it the Workforce and Economic Development Program.

Not everyone needs free tuition: Dr. Herk also argues if we implement universal tuition-free community colleges, the well-off will opt for it instead of community colleges. I have no data to refute that (just as she has no data to support it), but commonsense dictates that if an Ivy League school education is important to you, you are not going to soil your educational record with community college test scores. Yes, there will be some on the border of economic success/distress who will choose a taxpayer-funded first two years of college because it’s free, but I would argue that those numbers would be small. It’s not a bad thing either. It saves students two years of accumulating college debt, which means they can pour their earnings back into the economy sooner.

Not all community colleges make the grade: Dr. Herk and I agree on that. Community colleges must do a better job of providing a quality education based on skills needed to succeed in the work world. Artists need that grounding as much as financiers. Ironically, when California community colleges started charging tuition, their ability to provide a quality education decreased. The experiments in Oregon and Tennessee will be interesting to watch to see if the new emphasis of preparing students for the workforce has the side effect of increasing quality. I’m betting it will.

And that’s a win-win for all.

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at


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