It has long been a goal of educators and some government types to offer free schooling for everyone who wants it, from cradle to grave.

So President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide two years of free community college for everyone struck a chord with a lot of people — good and bad.

Under his plan, students who attend community college at least half-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average would have the first two years of their education paid for. An average full-time college student would save $3,800 in tuition per year under the plan.

The federal government would cover 75 percent of the average cost and participating state governments would cover the rest.

Not surprisingly, the idea was welcomed by at least some in and out of the education industry.  

Stephen Siciliano, Northwestern Michigan College’s vice president for educational services, said the focus on two years is important because it likely would enable students to attend full-time rather than part-time while working to pay for tuition. Most of NMC’s students are enrolled part-time, he said.

When students can attend school full-time, “they are more likely to complete than if they have to go part-time,” he said. 

Completing a degree has perhaps never had a bigger payoff. 

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else hit a record high last year, according to an analysis of Labor Department statistics released by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington last year. 

According to that report, those with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more per hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent 10 years before that and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

That’s a lot of money over a lifetime; It’s a wise investment in one’s future.

It can also be argued, then, that offering free college is a wise investment by the state and federal governments, since those high-earning college graduates will presumably pay more in taxes. And the more they pay in taxes, the better, right?

Perhaps. As other studies have shown, the kind of degree one earns matters, a lot. It’s a cliche, but English and history majors don’t fare well in the earning sweepstakes when compared to engineers or finance majors. 

While much can be said about the positive effects of a liberal arts education, going to school just to go to school may or may not pay off in increased lifetime earnings. And while future earnings are certainly not the only measure of the success of a college degree, they matter. And when debating the value of free college tuition, they matter a lot.

What we haven’t heard so far are the details, like where the money is supposed to come from. The initial plan is for the federal government to come up with 75 percent of the cost of two years of free community college and the states the rest.

In Michigan, that’s more a punchline than a plan. The state Legislature has been hacking away at state contributions to higher education, including community colleges, for years. We pay more for prisons than we spend on higher ed, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

So expecting the state to fund 25 percent of the first two years of college is admirable, but laughable. It’s a noble idea, but in the harsh reality of Washington and Lansing politics, it’s going nowhere.

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