Recently, Kentucky came one step closer to making free community college a reality for its residents.
House Bill 626, which passed the Kentucky House of Representatives on March 17, 2016, requires Kentucky students to apply for student aid and would allow the state to pay the difference between that and their tuition for up to two years.
Students would simply have to take 12 credit hours per semester and maintain a 2.0 grade point average.
Free community college is not without its critics.
When President Barack Obama proposed a free two-year college plan last year, some called it a handout, and others — such as the Institute for College Access and Success — got more literary and called it a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Yet in Kentucky now and in Tennessee two years ago, there have been major strides forward.
People who support this talk about valuing education, and those against it caution about raising taxes, but there's a lot more to it than that: Providing students with the option to attend community college for free isn't just about giving students access to education. It certainly does that, but it does a lot more, too.
Here are three surprising ways making community college free benefits everyone:
1. It strengthens the economy in the long-term.
The simple fact is, when people are more educated, they earn better wages, expand economic opportunity, and strengthen the overall economy.
The correlation is pretty easy to follow. People with higher education like a college degree have more job opportunities. It's also been shown that they're more likely to become more productive citizens and workers. That means more people with better jobs, with more money in their pockets, who are more able to effectively stimulate the economy.
One of the most often cited criticisms of free community college plans is that people don't want to spend their tax dollars on a perceived handout for others. In fact, anyone paying to support accessible education is actually helping to stimulate the economy in the long run.
2. Increasing education is related to lower crime rates.
Many studies, including this one from 2005, have shown that an increase in education has led to a reduction in crime, usually in pretty amazing proportions. For example, if the average time spent in school increased by one year, murder and assault would drop by almost 30%, motor vehicle theft by 20%, arson by 13%, and burglary and larceny would drop about 6%
We often forget about the large systemic injustices that contribute to crime, such as lack of wealth and opportunity. As we've seen, college education can lead to more economic opportunity, which can begin to tear down some of those barriers.
Also, a year in prison is in some cases more expensive than a year at Princeton — and taxpayers aren't on the hook to covering a year at Princeton. So there's a massive amount of taxpayer money to be saved by educating the masses instead of imprisoning them.
3. Finally, and most importantly, making community college free lets kids and teenagers know they're worth investing in.
Among the most hidden benefits of free access to community college is what happens in the hearts and minds of kids who suddenly have a feasible way to continue their education.
In Kentucky, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the program would cost about $20 million a year and could help 15,000 to 18,000 students in its first year.
That's 18,000 students who will suddenly have access to the life-changing and self-improving qualities of continuing their education. Thousands of kids who are suddenly being told that their state will actually pay money to help them succeed, and that they're worth that investment.
Free community college isn't just a handout.
Most Americans say they can't afford even public college. Many kids who manage to scrape together enough savings and loans to attend college have to remain in debt for years. Sometimes decades.
Giving people access to free community college is an investment. It would pay off in the economy and in the reduction of crime. It would save taxpayers money, and it would increase the productivity and wealth of our entire country.
But beyond that, it would send millions of kids a valuable message, one that would be undeniable in its benefits.
That message is that they're capable of succeeding. That they can, and should go to college, to find out what they're made of and how they can help us all build a better future.
And that we believe in them so much, we're willing to pay for it.