Free tuition

Gov. Phil Bryant’s budget proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year revives his idea of experimenting with free community college tuition for a certain number of students.

He wants the Legislature to allocate $7 million next year for the Mississippi Works Scholars Program. The governor says this would help more people learn skills that could qualify them for better jobs that pay more.

That certainly is possible, but the argument rests on the inaccurate contention that community college is unaffordable for too many families.

The cost of attending community college certainly has been rising, but it remains a tremendous bargain when compared to the expense of a four-year college or university.

To be more specific, a year of tuition and fees at a community college will run you about $3,000. Books and a dorm room probably would push the total to $5,000.

The same package at a university in Mississippi is heading rapidly toward $15,000. So it’s clear the state already is helping ambitious people of modest means advance their education at a reasonable expense.

The real question is whether there are enough existing financial aid opportunities for students who have the desire but not the money to attend a community college. By itself, the federal Pell Grant program, which is for families with income below a certain level, helps many students with college expenses.

Most Mississippi community colleges also have decent scholarship and financial aid programs that provide assistance. It would be very hard to find somebody in Mississippi who badly wanted to attend a community college but was unable to do so because of finances.

Mississippi’s community college system already has plenty of ways to help people pay for their education expenses. As for the idea of the state offering it for free, it just seems that people take better care of something when they pay for it instead of when it’s given to them. The same concept may be true of a college education.

Free community college is an idea being talked about by Attorney General Jim Hood, who is contemplating running for governor in 2019. Bryant’s return to this proposal may be an effort to match Hood’s suggested largesse.

However, if the governor and the Legislature really want to help community colleges, they could come up with the money to prevent the tuition increases that have been occurring more frequently. This is what’s been making it difficult for the potential students who may make too much money to qualify for a Pell Grant, and who make arrangements with a community college to finish paying a semester’s tuition when their dad gets paid at work.

But that would cost an awful lot more than $7 million.

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