‘Free community college’ not free, but necessary

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

For me, one of the biggest difference-makers in my life was going to college. What success I’ve found comes not only from the degree I earned, but from the growth I experienced trying to get that degree.

Like many of my fellow 1990s high school graduates, I was taught that if you had the will, the grades, and/or the need, scholarships and grants would make college possible. Indeed, for me, that was true. About 60 percent of my education was paid for with grants and scholarships, the rest I paid myself with very little debt left after school.

But that’s much more rare than it was just 15 years ago. College debt has become one of largest challenges facing young adults. The problem is so great that it has begun to affect the structure our economy. Every day I work with students just a hair’s breadth from dropping a class to earn some money, who balance a full load of classes with 20, 30 or even 40 hours of employment, and who will carry debt whether they graduate or not.

So perhaps you heard about a major proposal announced last week when President Obama proposed a major plan to make a community college or technical education free to all students willing to work for it. On the same day, State Senator and Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) announced a Minnesota Senate proposal to do the same here on the state level.

Though these proposals could rightly be labeled partisan, both represent expressions of a vital goal we should all share.

First, the obvious conflict of interest. I teach at Hibbing Community College. While I am a professional writer and radio producer, it’s fair to say I am biased when I talk about the importance of a community college education. That being said, I would not work at a community college if I didn’t believe in the importance of doing so.

Laptop and books on the floor of library in collegeHere are some things that have changed since I went to college in the late 1990s. Even more than before, college is a required element of getting a middle class job of any kind. College is nearly twice as expensive as it was. More people are going to college. Because of that, fewer people are fully ready for a traditional college education. Employer expectations now include increasingly complex communication and technological skills, which most students don’t have when they enter college or tech school.

It’s not just community colleges that bear the brunt of these challenges, but community and technical colleges are truly the front line of this ongoing war against poverty and the decline of the middle class.

One way to look at America (or Minnesota, or the Iron Range for that matter) of the 21st Century is not as a period of decline, rife with nostalgia for some imagined version of the past, but rather as a time of change. As with any change, people can adjust to meet the changes, or be defined by their inability to do so.

Quickly, critics of the president’s proposal argued that the poorest students already get college education paid for, while the rich don’t need help. To this, I’d point out that there aren’t really that many rich students left! The central challenge is the fact that poor students are less prepared to succeed in college, and middle class students — ineligible for income-based grants — are less able to afford it. We honestly see the sons and daughters of employed college graduates unable to afford college.

That’s a crisis.

It’s true; “free” community and technical college education isn’t free. But doing nothing, idly watching as the middle class is pinned down just one paycheck from economic disaster, that’s not free either. The cost of guaranteeing some college or technical career training is cheaper than the cost of a collapsing social order, bankrupt cities and the cruel effects of ignorance and poverty.

We have to decide what is worth our precious public investment. Preparing people to learn, grow, work, and innovate is only partisan if we exclude anyone. Which is why community or technical college for everyone is a noble goal for all of America.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Yep, it’s a no-brainer that tuition should be free or nearly so, as in most countries.

    My sense is that many colleges and universities have operated for decades as self-serving businesses, rather than community-serving or society-serving institutions. They have followed business plans based on raising tuition as much as they can get away with…. Doubtless community colleges have been less guilty than the likes of the University of Minnesota, but they need to be brought to heel and reformed in the public interest.

  2. We shouldn’t stop at free tuition. Let’s go for the full monty and include a car (used), gas money, food, shelter (prefab construction only), clothing (Target brand or better) and the iPhone 6..Plus.

  3. Free?? The last thing I got for free was lodging at my folks home when I left college and worked in the mines. When has “free” ever worked with the Govt involved? It is not free, it is paid for by other peoples tax dollars. We are 19 TRILLION in debt as a country, yet we want “free” everything. I can only imagine the abuse to the system with 10’s of billions of dollars up for grabs by politicians, administrators, students and the ever present lobbyists.

  4. A lot of zeros with all these trillions and billions – looks like resident 2014-15 full-time tuition and fees go less than$2,400 per . It’s hard to hear about ” ever-present lobbyists abusing the system ” and not think that at least a little cognitive dissonance and false equation might be happening .

  5. We are 19 Trillion in debt and in 10 yrs of free community college the bill will be 10 billion plus

  6. Is having a strong country a priority ?

  7. Of course it is. Some how without free college we built the most prosperous, free country in the history of mankind.

  8. Prosperous and free but with a 19 trillion deficit ?

  9. Well, I gotta go jog now . Never did well with formal logic , but it seems that getting folks set up to work and pay taxes would eventually produce a surplus, ( or trucks well with ROI metrics , if you prefer) . Have a good day in the MN .

  10. Yes, prosperous and free for its citizens- that 19 trillion is Govt run amuck. That is why I am a libertarian, I’m sick of our elected officials spending more than we take in and then saying raise taxes so they get their wasteful hands on more of our money. Govt stands in the way of prosperity, definitely doesn’t enhance it.

  11. Jog first , post later . Set the day up right , low BP and all .

  12. Tim Truckwell says

    Yupp-er , it just wouldn’t (couldn’t!) be America without someone going on about beards, ” awesomeness ” , lesser Star Wars references, and/or bacon .

  13. Getting folks working is what is all about. For northern Minn that would include logging on Fed land. Forests have a life span tree grow, mature, die, fall to forest floor and eventually burn. Cutting on Fed land will create jobs and reduce fires. Get the EPA/politicians outta the business of shutting down logging and mining so Polymet can create jobs. Use our millions of dollars of IRRRB money to help businesses come up here and create jobs. I am all for jobs but definitely not for free college. Enjoy your jog, I missed that craze and am too old now to even try.

    • A 2-year degree is just a starting point for either one of those gigs , as the equipment increasingly looks like it came from an AI / robotics lab . The rationalization of capital over labor can be carried a lot further- what implications does landing an unmanned aircraft on a carrier deck have for moving piles of oar around ? I hear you about good forestry . Who knows – the timber might be worth more standing than stumped in the event of a serious carbon credit offset market . Don’t really know much about the Polymet thing, ultimately , but do know that true cost accounting would suggest that they commit a lot of bonded dough to an environmental remediation fund . Like talking billions a lot . Hope you’re not too old to go sit in the shack , as many folks report a solid bite .

  14. Do libertarians believe that the millions of veterans who received a college or technical education from the 1944 GI Bill, widely acknowledged as building our middle class, was a wasteful use of tax dollars impeding progress?

  15. Big fan of GI bill. Rewarded guys and gals who served our country risking life and limb. With free college we are rewarding you for being 18……. Just a small difference. One was EARNED another given.

  16. Ah, so one must risk life and limb to earn our tax dollars being spent on federal programs. That’s quite a high criteria but I’m guessing seniors on SS and Medicare “earned” those payments because they paid in, not as much as they take out but who’s counting. Those 18 and under haven’t lived long enough to risk life and limb for country or pay into SS and Medicare, haven’t earned it, but write them off.

    I like Americans to be as well educated as possible. It’s a matter of being competitive with the rest of the world and not left behind. Money spent on education is never wasted. The more education people can get, the better the chances they will do better financially, have more stable lives and golly, less likely to be on welfare which should be a plus in your book.

  17. Yes I think if you paid into SS with a promise they would pay you back you should get your money from the Govt. Not our fault politicians raided the Lockbox, spent the money that was supposed to be growing on some half assed hair brained Govt program (Obama phones, starting solar companies…… free college) and now is destined to go broke. Most folks who can add know Ponzi schemes only work so long. I’ve paid in for over 40 yrs with the promise they will pay me back……. I know our wonderful Govt always keeps it’s word until they go broke- that is.

  18. So means testing would be out , then ?

  19. BTW, the same Govt that caused SS to go broke wants to run your healthcare….. Good luck

  20. Ask Mitch McConnell about healthcare .

  21. Ask John Boehner about Marlboro Lights .

  22. And what’s the best thing to ever come out of Iowa?

  23. I-94

  24. I know many people who attended Mesabi technical college in Eveleth back in the early 70’s, got training in welding and many other valuable skills at a very affordable tuition cost. Most landed jobs on the Iron Range, raised their families here comfortably and now living an economical sustainable retired existence. I think there were grants or other financial assistance available then that were not onerous to afford and mines and other businesses invested in the training of future workforce. As the economy picked up, I hear business owners have been having a hard time finding employees with the skills their businesses require. I think businesses dropped the ball there, slacked off in more recent decades on investing dollars in training education.

    People need a lot more than a high school diploma to get decent paying jobs. Education after HS has become more and more unaffordable and unattainable, an issue that should have been remedied long ago. Young people with the goals, drive, intelligence shouldn’t be held back or give up due to 4, 5 or 6 figure loan debts. I don’t see how it makes any sense whatsoever to waste the talent and contributions these young people can bring to all of us. Not if we want our economy to be healthier, grow and the US on the same educated workforce page as other western countries.

  25. College in Germany is free whether you are a german citizen or foreigner. Here, you can expect to have a student loan debt of around $30-40,00 after 4 years at a “state–land grant’ college. I began college in 1974 at which time generous grants & 0% loans were the norm. Now, our children have a debt of $40,000 or more underwritten principally by their parents. In 1980 the change with Reasgan occurred & morphed from a ‘investment’ I. Student concept to a ‘debt-centered’ post high school philosophy with tragic results. Today, our kids scrap by trying to find more than a WalMart job to make it, hoping to find a well paying position which hasn’t been eroded by NAFTA or one of the other obscene trade agreements whilst TPP is on the horizon. This is a bit of a’wide ranged rant & I hope you feel the same sense of frustration I feel,when I know our current policies don’t give our children the opportunities we had when we graduated from high schools. If a country like Germany can provide free post high school education, why can’t we?

  26. Loathing the comments looking backwards at the individual, but I think it describes a common mindset in the modern era. To be sure, education benefits the individual who has recieved an education. But does it not also benefit society ?

  27. We can do what you suggest Kurte, provide “free” post high school education. But then the teachers would have to work for “free” ..and the buildings would have to be built for “free”. The utilities – electricity, water and sewer would have to be provide for “free”…and the on-going maintenance would have to be “free”. Are you/we willing to do this?

    I think the first outcry would be from the teachers. And I wouldn’t blame them. Ask Aaron if he’s willing to work for nothing. Better yet, ask Christina & the kids. It’s a wonderful concept but I just don’t think we’ll find enough volunteers.

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