Recently I posted a story on Facebook about a program started in Tennessee that provides free community college education to all residents. Over 35,000 students have already applied for the program, and more will apply again this year.

One of my conservative Republican friends promptly posted the comment, “Who actually pays for it?” which was to suggest that nothing is free and ultimately we as tax payers will pay for others to get an education.

The topic of free community college has been in the news lately. On 8 January 2015, Barack Obama announced his goal to provide free college education. This was a major topic in his State of the Union speech.

More recently, Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation to make college and university education free.

So, in recent months, conservative Republicans have developed a knee-jerk reaction against any suggestion of free higher education, presuming such proposals are a form of socialism.

What liberals and conservatives forget is that it was the conservative Republican governor, Bill Haslam, who in 2014 initiated and implemented a free community college program in Tennessee. So, meanwhile, as Tennessee gets smarter and wealthier, we’re all still arguing about the feasibility of free public education.

Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers) is attributed with saying, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” — presumably she meant that an uneducated society is very expensive to maintain and govern. Unemployment, poverty, crime, and incarceration are costly.

To my friend who asked about the cost of education, I explained it this way.

Investing in education is sort of like Tax Increment Financing (TIF). The state makes a relatively small investment up front, and the long-term return on that initial investment far exceeds the original investment.

So, not only is it “free” but it actually makes money.

It’s one of the simpler things a state can do to make money. The financial returns are many. The most immediate and obvious gain is the increased tax revenue from residents who are now earning more money. In addition to generating additional revenue from taxes, the state pays less in terms of welfare, social services, and housing people in prisons. Industry is more likely to move into a state that has a well educated workforce, so now more businesses move in. Those businesses pay taxes as well.

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The Young Turks have produced a video that explains how a national education program might work. Their video focuses on the proposal from Bernie Sanders, but the general principles are the same regardless of who proposes it. Because their show is left-leaning, the obligatory theatrics of making negative comments about Republicans are included — yet somewhat irrelevant since a Republican governor has been the first to actually initiate free community college education.