Nolan Finley

Finley: Pay for free tuition with wasted federal job funds

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the 2019 NAACP convention in Detroit, Monday.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the 2019 NAACP convention in Detroit, Monday.
Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
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The question that comes up whenever the Democratic presidential candidates promise free stuff on the campaign trail is: "How are you going to pay for it?"

Most often, the answer is higher taxes on the wealthy, on Wall Street or on corporate America, or all three.

The answer never heard is: "By not funding something else taxpayers pay for, with little or no return."

But that's the winning solution for making tuition at two-year community colleges free.

Forty agencies of the federal government spend $19 billion on job training programs. Several audits of those initiatives over the years have concluded the same thing as a recent report from the Trump administration's Council of Economic Advisers: They don't work.

A relative few job seekers graduate from the programs and move into jobs. They are ill-designed for the local economies, offer incompetent instruction and have too little  accountability for the results achieved.

And yet the money keeps flowing to them from taxpayer wallets. 

Community colleges couldn't do any worse at preparing the workforce, and almost certainly would do better. 

For starters, they're more attuned to what local employers need. In Michigan, community colleges are already working with employers to provide the workers needed to fill existing job openings.  

The two-year colleges offer multiple paths to a career. Students can opt for a short-term program that teaches them a specific skill. Or they can get a two-year certificate that opens the door to a job in the construction trades or technical and medical fields. Or they can knock off the first half of a bachelor's degree at a bargain price before moving to a four-year university.

The best part of moving all federal job-training funds to community colleges is that it bypasses the Washington bureaucracy and places accountability for the results of the spending closer to the people who are being served. 

While free college has become a Democratic talking point, it's not a partisan initiative. The 17 states that have adopted versions of free or heavily subsidized college tuition have done so under both Democratic and Republican governors and legislatures.

Tennessee is the model many states follow. Its program was crafted by GOP leadership, working with the business community.

States finance the benefit in a variety of ways. Washington state just adopted a free tuition program funded with a tax on the businesses that need the talent colleges produce.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposes paying for her $100 million free community college proposal by reclaiming general fund money currently going to road work, once a new road funding scheme is adopted.

A much better place to get the money is from the federal job training programs that are squandering resources that should be directed to states to actually train people for jobs.

Politicians always promise to go to Washington and cut the waste and bloat from the federal government. Well, here's their chance.   

nfinley@detroitnews.com 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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