Here is a man-bites-dog story for you. The Democrats just voted against free college for all.

On Feb. 27, Democrats in New Hampshire defeated House Bill 673, which would have allocated $100,000 to cover the cost of students taking exams for free college credit. The bill was defeated by a vote of 202-141, with 199 Democrats “opposed” and only four in favor. The bill was proposed by Glenn Cordelli, a longstanding (Republican) member of the Education Committee of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

The $100,000 of funding would have paid the test fees for approximately 1,000 “CLEP” exams, and each passed exam could have saved a hard-pressed New Hampshire family the need to pay for a traditional college course, textbooks and fees — a savings that may reach $1,000-$2,000 per course or more, all in. Assuming eight courses equal an average college year, 1,000 CLEPs can equal about 125 years’ worth of free college tuition to Granite State residents, all for the same cost that a single wealthy student pays for just a year or two at an elite college today.

CLEP (or College Level Examination Program) exams are administered by the College Board, the nonprofit that also offers the SAT and the Advanced Placement exams. The CLEPs have been around for over 50 years, and can be taken by any person of any age or background, any day of the week, in 32 fundamental college subjects, from college algebra to sociology.

About 2,900 traditional colleges and universities (Ohio State, Penn State, Texas State, Morehouse, et al.) recognize CLEPs for credit, and both public and private colleges have been very supportive of CLEPs as an “on ramp” into their schools and as a practical way to make college more affordable for all. Each CLEP test passed brings a student one course closer to graduation, and many schools will allow students to “CLEP out” of a full year’s worth of courses (“freshman year for free”). The University of New Hampshire allows students to “CLEP out” of two years’ worth of courses in a four-year degree, or one year worth of courses for a two-year degree

Research shows that students who pass a CLEP are more likely overall to graduate from college, and more likely to do better on the follow-up course. The U.S. military has long paid the CLEP exam fee for active-duty military personnel (typically around $87-$100 per exam). The New Hampshire bill would have done the same for state residents, up to the $100,000 limit. The state likely would have saved taxpayer money for its kindness, because state spending on college already eats up about 10 percent of most state budgets, often in less efficient ways.

The CLEP exams have become particularly useful just in the past year or two because a complete online library — ModernStates.org — of totally tuition-free college courses to prepare for the CLEPs is now in existence. Modern States (a nonprofit philanthropy) has gained over 120,000 registered users since its launch about 18 months ago, and offers free online college courses (plus free online textbooks) in every CLEP subject. The free courses are taught by some of the nation’s best professors, from Johns Hopkins, George Washington University, Purdue, Tufts, and elsewhere.

With the proposed bill, anyone in New Hampshire could have learned the course material for free at ModernStates.org or elsewhere, taken the CLEP exams with state reimbursement, and saved up to two years of college cost when graduating from a great college like UNH. Here was “free college” today in a real-world and eminently achievable way.

The bill was voted down chiefly on a party-line vote. An outside observer can only conclude that party politics overcame common sense.

It’s a sad day when Democrats prevent poor kids from affording college. The Democratic Party should not make the same mistake outside of New Hampshire, and should correct its vote within New Hampshire. The goal of affordable education for all is a nonpartisan and bipartisan goal, as is the leadership of enabling philanthropies like Modern States. Support for CLEP exam fees – coupled with a public library of free college courses online – is the most efficient way to begin to achieve this goal. The same concept could work with free vocational courses, coupled with free nationally approved or state-approved licensing exams.

It only costs about $50,000-$100,000 to produce an online course, which can then be available free to everyone thereafter. A library of 100 great courses could be created for just $5 million to $10 million, as Modern States’ creation of its own public library of free courses has proven.

Why should tens of thousands of songs be available online for free, or tens of thousands of books at a public library, while a terrible online vocational course from the worst trade school still can cost $2,000? Support for a free public library of online courses with free certification exams or state-reimbursed CLEP exams can help make college more affordable now as a highly practical bipartisan step.

Steve Klinsky is the founder and CEO of the Modern States Education Alliance and the chairman of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

This post originally appeared in Real Clear Politics.



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