Commentary: ‘Free’ college? Not so fast

By Abdul Hakim-Shabazz

I have been teaching college for more than a decade, so when President Barack Obama recently announced his plan for free tuition at community college you would have thought I would have been excited.

Abdul Hakim-Shabazz is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPoltics.Org.

Abdul Hakim-Shabazz is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPoltics.Org.

Technically, as someone who is a strong believer in higher education, I Commentary button in JPG - no shadowshould be all on board. It’s no big secret that more education you have the less likely you are to be in poverty and poverty and unemployed.

It does not have to be college, but everyone needs an education after high school to compete in the 21st century. The facts speak for themselves, right?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for folks with a high school diploma or less was between 7.5 and 11 percent. Master’s degrees and above hovered below 3.4 percent. And that was in 2013.

So why can’t I get excited over “free” college? Why do I feel that when you get right down to it, I think “free” college is one of the worst things we could do?

I think I know why, after some careful thought and consideration. First, there is no such thing as “free.” Someone has to pick up the tab. That someone is usually the taxpayers, but they foot the bill for a lot of things, so that’s not my main objection. Here’s my problem. Under the president’s plan, students would get the first two years of community college free if they go at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA. It does not include books, transportation, and other college living expenses.

My problem: I don’t think under the president’s plan, the folks who get the “free” tuition have enough skin in the game. When you have skin in the game – i.e., you’re picking up part of the tab – you tend to treat things a little differently. In other words, you take it more seriously. I also think a 2.5 GPA is a little low. I think it should be at least a 3.0. It doesn’t take a lot of brain power and effort to walk away with a 2.5 GPA. Or at least, the better grades you get and the harder classes you take, the more of the tab we pick up.

I also like the community service element of the Tennessee model where students have to perform eight hours of community service per semester. When you have skin in the game, you show up for class, you study harder and you take things a lot more seriously. It’s been my experience that students who had to pay more of their own freight were usually more dedicated and worked harder than the ones who had someone else footing the bill.

And I won’t even start on the ones who only stayed long enough to get a financial aid refund check and then dropped off the face of the planet – because guess who had to pick up the tab when the federal government couldn’t find the student? That’s right, the school.

I think there a lot of ways we can bring down the costs of post-secondary education and make it more accessible. And we can start with having an adult discussion about student loan reform and by making more loans available. Have we had the perverse, yet unintended consequence of making college even more expensive? That’s another discussion for another column, but giving it away for free is never a good idea.

Abdul is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPoltics.Org. He is also a frequent contributor to numerous Indiana media outlets. He can be reached at

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