Tom Perriello: Let’s Make Community College Free!

Tom Perriello for Governor: More free stuff!
Tom Perriello for Governor: More free stuff!

Tom Perriello, Democratic Party candidate for governor, is right about one thing: The cost of attending college is far more expensive today than it was when his father, a son of Italian immigrants, got a scholarship to the University of Virginia and graduated debt free. And he’s right that many young people today are graduating with staggering amounts of debt that make it harder for them to buy a house or start a business. The runaway cost of college education is creating a social crisis.

But one of his proposed solutions — providing two years of free vocational training, apprenticeships and free community college — is fiscally reckless.

Meeting with students at the University of Mary Washington as part of a 16-campus tour, Perriello touted his plans for free community-college tuition and also the refinancing of existing student debt to reduce monthly payments, reports the Free Lance-Star.

The refinancing-student-debt idea may have legs. The idea has been floated to create a student loan financing authority that would sell tax-free municipal bonds to raise money to refinance student debt. There are some tricky issues here — how exposed would such an authority be to student defaults? — but the idea is not fiscally absurd on its face.

But paying two free years of community college would be a budget buster. According to the Virginia Community College System’s 2016 unaudited financial report, student tuition and fees generated $361 million to operating revenues. Perriello offers zero details on his website on how he would pay for such a sum. Here’s what he says:

To make post-secondary education more affordable and improve the career prospects for all young Virginians, I will make vocational training, apprenticeships or community college available debt-free for a minimum of two years. I will work with our universities to ensure that we do not continue to pile up the burden of tuition on the backs of students and their families.

Oh, he’ll “work with our universities” to control tuition. Great. While he’s at it, maybe he can work with Israel and Palestine to bring about Middle Peace.

There’s another problem with offering free tuition. If your criterion is helping students acquire certifications and degrees that get them jobs in the workplace, a lot of the money is wasted. The chart above, taken from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia website, shows the percentage of students who complete their two-year degrees within four years. The rate varies between 30% and 60% by region of the state.

As a matter of principle, students should put some skin in the game to demonstrate that they’re serious. The world is full of goof-offs and dilettantes who enroll in college because they can’t think of anything better to do, and it’s loaded with people who can’t complete their degrees due to disordered personal lives or lack of academic aptitude. Free tuition encourages non-serious people to enroll, not only wasting the state’s money but time they could put to better use elsewhere.

One last point: By making tuition free, the state would destroy any market discipline. If the state were stroking the checks, community colleges would have no reason to limit costs. As night follows day, to keep costs from running out of control, the state would have to impose cost controls. Does anyone want Richmond calling the shots on every decision?

Tom Perriello’s promise of free tuition may play well on college campuses, but it has more holes than a wiffle ball.

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42 responses to “Tom Perriello: Let’s Make Community College Free!”

  1. Hamilton Lombard Avatar
    Hamilton Lombard

    Anne Holton was on CSPAN the other day and also argued that community college students need to have some “skin in the the game” to make community colleges work: (around 1:14:00)

  2. Just trying to get elected they will promise anything. Says a lot about who falls for it.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Just as I’ve been writing – there are unlimited demands for more and more and more taxpayer dollars – health care, K-12, transit, free college, roads, and on and on. Taxpayers are under assault. When does it stop? It’s bread and circuses.

    I notice Perriello didn’t address cutting costs to make higher education affordable. Oh that’s right. Most of those folks in higher education vote for Democrats. Just like Al Gore’s reinvention of government. It was proposed to stagger delivery of Social Security checks throughout the month to have big bucks. Gore was for this, until the HHS union leaders pointed out that would require layoffs. And the idea went into a dark hole.

    I too must add my kudos to Anne Holton for acknowledging the importance of students having skin in the game.

  4. The contrast between the way we offer and pay for community college versus secondary education is stark. We push hard to keep those young adults in high school, offering free education, even free meals to many, and every inducement we can think of to stay in school (and truancy laws if they don’t). THEN they hit 18 and finish (graduate?) from high school. The rules reverse; the incentives reverse; the finances reverse.

    This is arbitrary. It’s particularly arbitrary when, as those “Project XQ” ads on PBS point out, our secondary system was designed to train factory workers in the 19th century. As JB noted in an earlier post this week, “Virginia’s high school system was designed in the late 1800s for a manufacturing-dominated economy. That system is not working for the 21st-century economy, said Cannaday. New skill sets are needed.”

    Very well then, how do we teach those new skill sets? Can it be done in our secondary system, even if reformed somehow? No, the judgment of the consumer, our students, is, it will require some years of post high school education to do the job.

    I think it is the job of the State to do properly the task — educating our young people — that it set out to accomplish in the 19 the century. That means, educate them into the community college years the same way we educate them through high school, if that’s what modern employment requires. Either that, or get the State out of the education business entirely. But this “falling off a cliff” transition we have today from one educational system to another, pre- and post-high-school, is “arbitrary and capricious” (as the lawyers love to say).

    OK, so Perriello’s proposal would cost nearly $400 million. Would our Virginia economy and our tax revenues rise enough to cover that? Could other training programs be phased out or redirected? In other words, would it pay for itself? Probably so. But my argument is based simply on the fact that the current system isn’t getting the job of basic education done adequately, as our young people themselves are telling us with their appalling debt loads from college.

    You want them to have skin in the game? Today, they’ve got skin, and arms, and legs in the game too. If you want to have a stable system the financial and social progression from high school to community college should be smooth; think about what form of skin-in-the-game we should require from kids in high school also. Community service is one non-cash direction we should be thinking, as practiced widely in European secondary schools.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I agree with tenor of post, and comments.

    This politician pretends to give away “free” education that only wastes years of students lives, doing more harm than good as it avoids the real problems that too often lay in the lack of high schools doing their jobs. Meanwhile the politician buys votes with taxpayer monies instead of fixing a problem.

    As suggested in post, much of same thing is going on in the upper levels of higher education. Schools are pulling down the quality of their degrees. This keep students paying more money and adding ever more debt to get less and less by way of valuable education. Many masters degrees that are now necessary to get low paying jobs.

    PS – By the way UVA just announced it raised $3 Million + yesterday.

    1. RF, I am not defending Perriello’s proposal per se, only the notion that our current educational system (viewing secondary and primary as one) is not, overall, getting the job done. We agree on that — with different emphases, not different conclusions. I know you want to see us clean up the waste and, yes, hypocrisy, in higher education today, particularly those ivied and white columned 4-year residential institutions. I’m looking at it from what it costs those middle-class kids borrowing against future earnings they’re unlikely ever to receive to pay for a grossly overpriced education they know they must obtain to get any chance at employment. Same overpriced product, different perspective on it, that’s all.

      As for “free community college” I certainly don’t want to remove what little incentive to cost control there is in the system; but in any discussion of getting-back-to-basics, we have to ask what are these schools intended to accomplish, what is the proper role of the State in that, how do we fix the colleges’ waste and greed, and how we provide a needed education (which too many seem so anxious to buy with enormous debt) to our future workforce if not through our community colleges on a subsidized-cost basis?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    If you follow TMT’s logic.. we should not be funding K-12 nor loans for college because they are a terrible drain on tax dollars that have not proven to be of any benefit!

    Indeed – let’s make parents pay for their kids K-12 as well as college and reduce the burden on taxpayers!

    Oh..and by the way , while we are at it.. stop all this entitlement fru fru for MedicAid , food stamps and TANF.. etc.. it’s not the job of taxpayers to pay for these “takers”.. right?

    Truth is .. people who work deserve their compensation and people who don’t need a swift kick in the arse not entitlements…

    batter up! 😉

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, my argument is not to undo what already exists. I’m arguing that we are facing a never-ending call to expand government services (and, very importantly, the government jobs that go with expanded services) without regard to cost or effectiveness. When I raise this point, I’m confronted with – well this one is important. Just expand this one. No one on the expand government side has indicated any area that is less important. Should we do health care expansion, free college, more money for poor K12 school divisions; fund public sector pensions? Name something that can wait.

      Perriello is just trolling for votes – bread and circuses. I’d respect the man if he said what we are doing doesn’t work and I have plan to eliminate what’s not working and replace it with something that I think will work better. I’ve read a number of reports suggesting that both high school and college take too long. Perhaps, we need to replace K-12 plus 2 or 4 more years with a K-11 plus 18 months to 3 years, better integrating high school and post-high school. Use the savings from eliminating several years of instruction to fund a more years of a shorter program. But that will cost jobs – public sector jobs. And just like Al Gore and the Social Security Administration, that will never happen.

      People who live in the private sector are constantly being faced with cost-control pressures. More for less. Replace labor intensive processes with ones that are mechanized. But we need to save those gum-ent jobs. Spend more; tax more.

      Show me the public sector blood on the floor.

      1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

        As someone who has consulted for all 3 sectors (public, private, and nonprofit) I can testify that the most difficult sector to implement efficiencies is the public sector.

        I worked with a very good local government administrator three years ago on an efficiency initiative. We wanted to mecchanize a simple tax collection process. The savings would have been modest, but real. Ha ha ha….we did implement the solution, but the “holy taxpayers” raised bloody hell that they didn’t have a “person” to complain to….and no, these weren’t “liberals”, but instead they were tea party types. The most conservative member of the governing body championed the return of humans to those positions b/c “the taxpayers deserved to speak to a live human being.” I’ve run into the same issue across the country on many public sector projects.

        Trust me, there are many very good public sector managers who are more than willing to chop the worker bees. But a variety of factors that aren’t present in the private or nonprofit sectors prevent the implementation of these solutions. Most of the citizenry still believes that they have a “right” to “talk to a person” about government matters. Change that attitude, and a lot of things would change in the public sector.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Wow. The single greatest state government accomplishment in Virginia over the past 100 years was letting me renew my driver’s license online vs having to show up in person at that customer service disaster show they call the DMV.

          People want to talk to a government employee? Not me. I’d bet 90% of Americans under 40 would rather speak lees often with government employees rather than more often.

          1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

            I agree with you in the sense that it is an age factor. But as of now, the Boomers are in complete control of government at most levels. And they still expect “someone” to talk to them if they demand to see someone.

            I’ll give you another example that should make everyone’s head explode: newspaper ads. There’s simply no reason that every public notice shouldn’t be on a county or city’s web site and that should suffice as public notice. I can’t imagine what Fairfax and Henrico and VaBeach must pay in newspaper ads, which no one reads, on an annual basis. That’s one of the simplest efficiencies that government could make, and yet the General Assembly will never repeal that mandate.

          2. Hear, hear, for not requiring legal ads any longer. Save a few more trees and get rid of the hard-copy Federal Register and its State cousins. But what will replace that lost revenue to our beleaguered newspapers? Perhaps we should simply scrap the print versions of those too and do every news medium as an online text (I already read two newspapers daily online). Or, we could revert to the day, pre 1780 or so, when you judged the veracity of the news you read by the reputation of the Publisher. No “fake news” problem in those days when readers could tar and feather anyone they caught faking it.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        TMT – what we already have – needs to change – because some of it is not working and other unfairly favors one group over another.

        I’m NOT in favor of expanding govt but I AM in favor of re-allocating to get more effectiveness out of what we spend already and especially so when our education system is not providing us – taxpayers – with an employable workforce that, in turn, means taxpayers will pay for entitlements.

        TMT – you see this as a losing proposition.. I see it as an even worse losing proposition if we do not change. IF we just try to sit where we are , we will fall further and further behind. Our country will fall further and further behind on education, on health care, on it’s economic lifeblood.

        For instance. Stop giving all-you-can-eat loans to kids to pay for upscale college and restrict it to bare-bones costs – AND community college..

        it won’t take more money to do that – just reallocating it to put that money to more effective use.

        Ditto with health care… don’t pay for ERs for people with advanced diseases that were undetected… provide that same money we now spend on ER to have people see doctors to detect and find those diseases BEFORE they become advanced and cost taxpayers far more money.

        1. I would like to agree that reallocation of what we already spend on remedial measures after-the-fact could cover the full cost for both health and education up-front benefits expansion. Intuitively it makes sense. But if you run across hard evidence of that, or a solid study’s prediction of that, would love to see it. There was some work done in the 60s on the cost-benefit of including preventive medicine and an annual checkup in Medicare, that’s all I have seen.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      Larry, you’re right. Transportation should be a right. Free cars for everybody. People should celebrate their birthdays in style. Free steak dinners and trendy clothes to wear to the dinner. Why should free wrist watches only go to Virginia state politicians. Free Rolexes for all!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        no, no DJ.. remember I support congestion tolling! I DO BELIEVE in people paying for what they use and especially so when there are too many of them vying for a limited resource.’

        You’re a man that flies … I bet.. and I bet you are very familiar with how the very same seat on the very same plane costs all different kinds of prices – depending on demand.

        That’s EXACTLY how the pubic sector could actually emulate the private sector on transportation supply and demand!

        Why not price the roads the same way the airlines price flying?

        If the airlines did like we do with roads – they’d have thousands of planes sitting empty on the ground during those times outside of peak demand!

        1. djrippert Avatar

          You shouldn’t support congestion tolling. Just another scheme. You should support pay by the mile for anybody operating a vehicle on public roads. Lock down a GPS device in the car and every time you get your car inspected the data is downloaded and you get a bill.

          1. My son and his buddies would gladly undertake the quest of hacking those devices purely for the pleasure of it. As would so many others! No, HOW you collect user fees is a large part of the puzzle.

  7. djrippert Avatar

    Did Santa Perriello mention where he would get the money? Kind of unusual to see snowflakes in Virginia in mid April.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: where will we get the money? One would presume the same place we’d get more DOD money or money for a wall or for virtual online schools or vouchers and charter schools.

    but the most important reality for folks to recognize is the statement that our schools were originally designed to produce factory workers and the world has changed and most of the rest of the world has changed their k-12 to deal with that while we have not and, in fact, actually have people who say they want the govt out of education.. and standards relegated to localities.
    Common Core is strongly opposed by the very folks who are victims of globalization…

    so we refuse to deal with this reality and choose instead to argue about “how” we will pay for it .. as if that will determine what we will do about it or not.

    we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world in education and health care and our response to that has been to try to find someone to blame and once that blame is affixed – then do nothing because we do not want to “expand govt”.

    30 other countries actually use govt to improve education and health care and drive down prices in doing so. We? We apparently are not capable of doing that so we’re going to stick with an education system to produce factory workers and spend twice as much on health care and still have the worst life expectancy of any advanced nation on the planet.

    Oh.. and when we point out this stark reality – we become “snowflakes”.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Not quite. Unlike the Federal government Virginia can’t just print more money when supplies get tight.

      1. But we CAN borrow it from China. They lend to third world countries run by dictators and such. And unlike the Muslim world, they buy pig processing plants.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          True, although the Chinese probably have that annoying habit of wanting to be paid back. Would this plan let Virginia raise wages enough to pay back the loan from the increased taxes paid on the higher wages. I doubt it but I’d have to spend some time running the numbers. I like the idea of making a loan that is forgiven based on the taxes you do pay in Virginia.

  9. “Free tuition” is a growing movement. Republican Governor Haslam in Tennessee just got a bill passed through a conservative state legislature for tuition free community colleges. It does not mean that community colleges do not charge tuition or that just anyone gets it free. Students have to go through a rigorous process to qualify. And Tennessee has “Promise Scholarships” of some $5,000 per year to any Tennessee HS graduate who goes to a public or private college or university–in Tennessee. And Tennessee does not have an income tax either.
    And the “free” plan just announced by the governor of NY is not entirely free. They are loans that can be repaid by working for a agency, county, private company in some cases located in the state of NY.
    It is modeled after the National Defense Student Loan Program that came about when General Ike was POTUS. (Back then Va had a state teachers scholarship which was a loan that could be paid back by teaching in VA public schools.)
    A crisis is approaching and some states are trying to figure out what to do. A number states now let community colleges offer 4 year occupational and technical degrees.
    But change is coming and it will not be easy.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      “And the “free” plan just announced by the governor of NY is not entirely free. They are loans that can be repaid by working for a agency, county, private company in some cases located in the state of NY.”

      That actually sounds like a promising idea.

    2. Thanks for this, JWG; I was not aware of Tennessee’s latest. They have led the way on discussing expanded community college benefits for several years now. I firmly believe free c.c. (with strings attached) is not just some snowflake giveaway but something Republicans ought to endorse, a real investment in that State’s future workforce, the cost of which is probably more than offset by the reduced need for worker retraining and the treatment of “despair casualties.” My fear is that Perriello’s touting something similar will unduly taint the idea with unwarranted GA partisanship.

  10. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    From what I’ve seen of Perriello, he’s looking for free to all but taxpayers.

    The arguments for spending more money on education don’t make sense. Half the time, there are complaints that our K-12 system tries to prepare everyone for college even when that is not a good fit. The other half of the time, the complaint is we are stuck in the 19th century making factory workers. Which is it? And why don’t educators propose to fix it? Could it be they like the status quo? More money, more money.

    What if we adopted a policy whereby we would reimburse students who successfully complete a semester of school with part of the tuition costs and then reimburse the rest upon completion of a two-year degree or certificate? That ultimately puts students in a position without debt, but requires skin in the game and requires a successful effort.

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      I don’t make political predictions very often, but I think Perriello is going to romp in the primary and in November. I’ve never seen anything like the contempt people have for Trump this early in an administration.

      Northam’s yesterday’s news. Gillespie is a member of Trump’s party and a lobbyist. Stewart is embracing the Confederate flag.

      Perriello is going to be the next Governor.

    2. TMT, I like the sound of that. “Free” but only if you stay on the wagon.

  11. It is always damaging in a way to call for anything to be “free”. There is no such thing as a free lunch. We get ourselves into financial problems in part by not forthright on our problems and spending.

    We spend more money on post-secondary education than any other country, so there should be money to fund models that make more sense for the information age. But there isn’t. It is all tied up in an inefficient system that isn’t working well for large parts of the population.

    Perriello is going to be the Bernie Sanders of Virginia.

  12. “We spend more money on post-secondary education than any other country, so there should be money to fund models that make more sense for the information age. But there isn’t. It is all tied up in an inefficient system that isn’t working well for large parts of the population.” Exactly!

    “Half the time, there are complaints that our K-12 system tries to prepare everyone for college even when that is not a good fit. The other half of the time, the complaint is we are stuck in the 19th century making factory workers. Which is it?” Another ‘exactly.’

    Some schools teach only content and how to follow explicit instructions — others teach how to think and write and argue as well. So both complaints are true. The kids who receive the latter sort of secondary education are every thinking employer’s dream hire, and those are the same kids the colleges want and will offer scholarships to get; they have choices! The kids who receive the former are ably prepared for Bethlehem Steel, and if they realize what a dead end they have graduated into, they go borrow the cost of college tuition to escape that fate, only they really don’t have adequate college-prep thinking and writing skills and many flunk out. They have no choices but booze and painkillers, and maybe the military if they can get in.

  13. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    “We spend more money on post-secondary education than any other country, so there should be money to fund models that make more sense for the information age. But there isn’t. It is all tied up in an inefficient system that isn’t working well for large parts of the population.”

    When do the layoffs begin? Fairfax County won’t even cut out its extra pension that gives teachers in their 50s an equivalent to Social Security until they are 62 for some and for life for others. No one has a pension plan like this. But there shall be no cuts.

  14. We do spend more but more and more students are borrowing huge sums of money to pay for it.
    And we are the only industrial nation in the world where the Bachelors degree is a four year degree. Everybody else has a 3 year 12 months a year and students are more focused and college is not a place to hang out for four or five years because a person does not know what they want to do and are making college a way station to where ever..
    Some American universities are experimenting with a 3 year degree including land grant Purdue.
    The main factor driving our colleges and universities today is their debt and their need to spend more and more on recreation etc.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Cutting the time it takes to get a college degree would certainly allow the opportunity for colleges and universities to reduce their operating costs. But that would involve layoffs. It won’t happen. The name of the game is get more and more money from taxpayers, students and their parents paying tuition.

      Another example, Fairfax County Public Schools and Fairfax County operated competing programs to help pre-school children with speech and hearing disabilities. Trying to identify these children and give them assistance before they start school seems to be a prudent use of tax dollars. But why would two separate programs compete with each other? Jobs. Both programs needed directors, assistant directors, etc. The idea that there should be only one program that could either cost less or help more children was resisted. I poked at both the Schools and the County for about five years and moved on. Jobs were more important that the children, much less taxpayers.

      Many creative educational programs could be tried and operated through self-funding. Free community college is designed to take more taxpayer dollars.

    2. If potential students see that employers reward the community college degree with the same salary and opportunities as the 4-year residential nameplate, we might hope that competition would have some effect on the cost of the latter. But it doesn’t slow them down from seeing that debt. Why? Is the nameplate degree really more valuable?

  15. LarrytheG Avatar

    we’re all thinking inflexibly.

    Who is to say what K-12 should or should not include and who is to say what post-secondary means .. or not?

    The reality is that work in the 21st century requires a higher level of basic education than it did when we were agrarian and then industrial ..

    .. and yet we argue about “expansion of govt” as if we actually try to modernize our education – that it would be doomed by an ever expanding govt sucking up more tax dollars to waste on unproductive and wasteful spending.

    also FYI – for those who think we already spend too much:

    What countries spend the most on education?

    Netherlands – $10,075.19 per student.
    Belgium – $10,122.99 per student.
    Denmark – $11,403.50 per student.
    Austria – $11,693.07 per student.
    United States – $11,825.89 per student.
    Norway – $13,066.64 per student.
    Switzerland – $13, 510.48 per student.
    Luxembourg – $19,049.81 per student.

    Our problem is that our system is bifurcated into two tiers –

    the lower tier is your basic education that is suited to those who would work a lifetime at a factory job with “benefits”.

    the top tier is for those headed to traditional 4-yr college and that’s actually where the extra money that is spend over and above the required SOL match is actually spent – with a small percentage of it directed at vocational ed but the lions share toward electives courses intended to provide a foundation for college.

    Some don’t want the govt “messing” with education anymore citing the current “failure” as “proof” that the govt is incapable of fixing education – despite the fact that every other industrialized country that outranks us – did so by government direction and taxpayer funding.

    Apparently the US is the most corrupt and inept country on the planet and we cannot ..we dare not trust govt to do “education” cuz if they do – they’re going to grab our wallets and take even more money!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry – do you trust government to do the “right thing” with respect to public education reforms? Let’s assume for purposes of my question that the right thing to do is reorient instruction to skills needed to be successful in a changing world with more technology and provide for different tracks, rather than push most everyone to college. Also, obsolete aspects would be eliminated. If so, why? If not, why not?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        TMT – I trust that the govt is the only institution that has the potential to do so, no different than our roads, or air traffic control, or GPS or NOAA weather satellites. .. so yes… it’s the institution that got us public education to start with.

        every other OECD country on the planet that outranks us – did so with the govt.

        re: push everyone to college..

        Do you consider occupational certificates “college”?

  16. Larry, your data is for primary and secondary education. There are some countries that spend more there. I commented on postsecondary (community college, college, etc.). There we spend noticeably more. You might even argue that we overspend on post-secondary vs. primary and secondary education.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Izzo – good link – I stand corrected!

      ” Expenditures per FTE student varied widely across OECD countries. At the elementary/secondary level, expenditures per FTE student in 2012 included low values such as $2,800 each for Turkey and Mexico. Switzerland had the highest value of $15,500. The United States spent $11,700 per FTE student at the elementary/secondary level, which was 31 percent higher than the average of $9,000 for OECD member countries reporting data.”

      another source:

      ” The United States spent more than $11,000 per elementary student in 2010 and more than $12,000 per high school student. When researchers factored in the cost for programs after high school education such as college or vocational training, the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the report.

      That sum inched past some developed countries and far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922 while Mexico averaged $2,993 in 2010. The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.”

      ” The findings, part of a 440-page tome of statistics, put the United States’ spending on its young people in context.”

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