The presidential election pushed grassroots proposals to make public college free into the mainstream. But should these plans stay there? And if so, in what form, now that the most prominent supporters of those proposals lost the race for the White House?
Experts debated the topic earlier this month as part of a panel convened by the Education Writers Association during its 2017 seminar on higher education data. The discussion highlighted some of the main points of controversy over free college proposals, including the efficacy of the programs at getting students to and through school, the possibilities that tuition-free will oversaturate colleges with too many students and the labor market with too many college graduates, and the question if the costs to taxpayers justify the benefits and the power of the word “free.”
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University, offered a passionate defense of measures to make public college free throughout the session. In her book, “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” Goldrick-Rab uses personal narratives to argue that the complicated processes of applying for and awarding financial aid discourage low-income students from pursuing aid and make it more difficult for them to complete their educations. Goldrick-Rab elaborated on some of these points during the panel and pointed to a model of universal funding for students as the solution.
“We know a lot at this point about the promises and also the failures of the current financial aid system, which looks very much the same as it did 50 years ago,” she said. “Communities across the country are starting to say this isn’t working for us.”
Indeed, localities from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to New York state either already have programs in place to offer free college to their residents or are thinking of ways to do so. Early research on arguably the biggest program so far — a Tennessee initiative to offer two free years of community college to students 19-years-old or under in the state — indicates that the financial help pushes more students into school, said Joni Finney, the director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Still, it may still be too early to tell how the programs affect the schools and students long term, she said.
Finney highlighted her research which found that Tennessee’s initiative increased full time enrollment at community colleges by 25 percent. So far, the colleges in the state have successfully managed to absorb the influx of new students, Finney said, largely because the increase in new students has been concentrated at the urban schools that can handle it. Still, as the program continues, addressing capacity concerns will certainly be on the agenda, she said.
“It may lead them into more evening and weekend classes and other programs, which we should be doing in higher education anyway,” she said.
Neal McCluskey, the director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the conservative-leaning Cato Institute, argued that a possible surge in students attending college and ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree isn’t simply a challenge to which institutions will need to adjust, it’s a fundamental problem with providing free college to everyone. “I’m not arguing that I don’t want some people to access education, what I’m saying is by making it free, we’re going to have even more degrees when the evidence now is that we have too many in the labor market,” McCluskey said.
Finney dismissed the notion that our nation is overeducating people, but she said she did worry about the cost free college could place on states, which are coping with tight budgets. National proposals for free college would have encouraged states to invest in their higher education institutions to gain access to more federal funding. With that federal help now off the table, states will have to look for ways to fund the programs themselves.
All of the panelists agreed that in many cases the money states do invest in higher education is disproportionately directed to flagship schools, which tend to educate more fortunate students. Goldrick-Rab and Finney noted that there are mechanisms states and localities can include in their free college proposals to encourage state investment in under-resourced institutions instead.
Ultimately, the spirited debate about the future of the free college movement ended in agreement about one thing: The current system for financing college needs fixing. “The only thing that concerns me more than free higher education is the pricing now,” McCluskey said. “The pricing now is totally convoluted.”