Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Free college tuition would give Florida a real bang for the buck

President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn., about new initiatives to help more Americans go to college.
President Barack Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn., about new initiatives to help more Americans go to college. AP

Forget the tats, nose rings, their music so discordant to aged ears. Stop thinking of these creatures as sentient human beings.

Instead, envision college students as investment vehicles. Underwrite their education costs. Wait for the returns to mount up.

Last week, President Barack Obama proposed a federal-state program that would provide free tuition for the first two years of community college “for everybody who’s willing to work for it.”

His plan’s modeled after a Tennessee free tuition program that figures to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees from 33 percent to 55 percent. Of course, Obama has about as much chance of getting one of his proposals through this Congress as I have consummating a relationship with Jennifer Lawrence. But the all-but-certain failure of the Obama free tuition plan gives Florida a competitive opening.

Gov. Rick Scott, who promised to create new jobs for Floridians by going around the country flogging tax breaks and hoping to filch corporations from other states, could get a better return by putting some brains in the workforce.

Get the jump on other states. Eliminate tuition for state community colleges. Restore a Bright Futures scholarship program that over the last few years has cut the number of Florida kids eligible for the scholarships in half (and wiped out 60 percent of the Hispanic and 75 of the black students getting help on college tuition).

Free tuition for good students at state colleges and universities would be a hell of a lot better investment for taxpayers than Scott’s corporate giveaways.

A joint investigation by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times in 2013 looked at 342 job-creation deals brokered by the Scott administration. The agreements, larded by $266 million in tax breaks and other incentives, were supposed to create 45,258 new jobs in the state. Just 4 percent of those jobs materialized.

Investing in higher education offers a bigger bang for the bucks. A 2013 joint study by the Nexus Research and Policy Center and the American Institutes for Research found that the average gain in additional tax revenue from someone awarded an associate’s degree from a community college was $67,000.

A 2014 study by the Economic Modeling Specialists International found that for every taxpayer dollar spent on America’s community colleges in 2012, “society as a whole will receive a cumulative value of $25.90 in benefits.”

Researchers from the Rand Corporation found that “the available evidence indicates that more education is associated with at least 7 to 10 percent higher earnings per additional year of schooling among those who are employed.”

The median weekly earnings of a bachelor’s degree holder in 2011 were 64 percent higher than those of a high school grad. Rand said that this means “higher tax payments and higher payments to social support and insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare.”

But the investment would mean more than enhanced tax collections. Educated kids are simply less likely to burglarize your home, steal your car, peddle drugs to your kids. Rand found “a good deal of evidence that more education is associated with a lower likelihood of criminal activity. Therefore, increases in educational attainment are also associated with a reduced likelihood of an individual becoming incarcerated.”

College, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot cheaper than “operating and maintaining correctional facilities.” Rand figures the return on investment, just by getting a kid to graduate from high school, can mean a savings of $22,000 in social programs and $13,000 in incarceration costs. The more years of college, the more those average savings go up.

Besides, having an educated workforce ought to be as alluring to out-of-state corporations looking to relocate as Florida’s dodgy tax incentive program. Especially if our workers don’t have rap sheets.

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