The idea of free college has garnered a lot of attention from students and parents, in large part due to the role that college is playing in the Democratic debates and the ever-increasing cost of tuition. Most major presidential hopefuls have their own ideas for what free college should look like and who it should target. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, for example, has recently proposed a plan that would allow people earning under $100,000 per year to request up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness, and people earning under $250,000 per year could request partial forgiveness on their loans. Sen. Warren has also proposed making tuition free at every two- and four-year public college and expanding access to the federal Pell Grant program for low-income students.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has proposed broader plans: loan forgiveness for everyone, and in 2017 proposed a tuition-free college bill that would also cover living expenses for students with the lowest family incomes. Senator Amy Klobuchar, also running for president, has supported a 2018 bill that would make community college tuition-free; other Democratic candidates have also voiced their support for different plans to forgive student loans and make tuition free.
What Does Free College Mean?
Free college is not as it seems, however. There is a lot of complexity over what free college really means, which makes many students question whether or not they would qualify for free college plans. Most free college plans come with a set of requirements which make many students ineligible — these are very apparent in state free-college proposals and programs. The minutiae of a lot of the free college plans that have been proposed do not provide assistance to a large number of the people they are designed to help, such as students who are going back to college at an older age and part-time students. Free college may sound free — indeed, that is how it has been touted, with words like “universal” being included in proposals — but for the most part, there are still costs attached, if a student even qualifies at all.
In addition to national proposals by Democrats in favor of free tuition, states have also played a role offering access to free tuition through “Promise” programs — the Nevada Promise, Indiana Promise, Oregon Promise, among others. The terms of these programs vary by state and campus, and have different ramifications for each individual student. The idea behind these programs was to help expand access to free college offerings for students at a state-level, often making community college free for certain students. However, most of these programs have ended up as the byproduct of politicians who can garner a lot of attention for proposing “free college.” As a result, many of the Promise programs currently suffer from a series of problems which make the students who most need help ineligible — politicians have underestimated the complexity of offering free college.
In an interview with NPR, Katie Berger, a senior analyst at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, said “I mean, I get paid to do this and it was very challenging for me to understand the nuances in a lot of these programs.” Berger further said “And if it’s hard for me to understand, I can’t imagine how challenging it is for low-income students and first-generation students to wrap their heads around this.” There are currently around 15 statewide Promise programs and hundreds of other local proposals as well, which as Berger highlights, makes it difficult to understand the true extent to which these programs help others. If there are so many programs available, how will students be able to evaluate if they are eligible — indeed, how will students find out which program may be right in the first place.
Free College Does Not Cover Books and Board
Free college proposals around the country are incredibly complex and suffer from many structural problems. The first, and perhaps the most applicable, is the fact that many programs do not cover the cost of room, board, textbooks, and other expenses for students. Textbook costs alone increased 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The College Board recommends that students allocate $1,200 per year for books and other resources, which can be very difficult for students with low incomes to afford. The price of room and board is also rising at a rate faster than inflation, according to a report by the Urban Institute, and the average room and board charges for 2015-16 were almost $12,000 in four-year private nonprofit institutions and almost $10,000 in four-year public institutions.
In the California Promise program, for example, students in need still cannot cover their full education because of the high costs of room, board, and other expenses. The program, which was launched last year, has a number of provisions which make the program inaccessible to many students who need it most. For example, students cannot qualify for a year of free tuition unless they attend a community college, they are a full-time student, and they have not previously enrolled in college. This means that, for the most part, the program will benefit people who have higher incomes — those less likely to work second jobs while attending college and who are more likely to graduate on-time.
Indeed, the program does allow low-income students to spend promise money on textbooks, food, and other costs. However, the government has only appropriated $46 million for the program — a very small portion of the $4.7 billion that state and public universities spend on financial aid each year. Students will, therefore, continue to take out more loans to finance their education which will accrue interest over time. Further, many other state promise programs either do not allocate money for additional resources or have allocated very little, which means many students are unable to benefit from the programs.
Free College Is Not Free for Everyone
Other state programs also have significant eligibility requirements which make them inaccessible to many people. According to the Lumina Foundation, 40 percent of students work full-time while attending college, and a quarter have children or take care of someone, which means that many people would likely not benefit from such exclusions in college promise programs. However, as aforementioned, most programs require that students attend college full-time, which means they would not qualify for such programs. In addition, 12 of the 15 statewide promise programs are only available to students who are attending college for the first time or who have recently graduated from high school, which means older learners will not be able to benefit from these programs. In sum, most free college programs help those who need it the least and not those who need it the most, based on the significant eligibility requirements.
Free College Is Not a Solution
Free college programs, in addition to being restrictive in terms of what they cover, also do nothing to address the root causes of the student debt crisis: the rise of tuition. In fact, free college would indeed be a good idea if traditional public colleges were fully-functional and provided every student with a great experience. But that is not the case. Around 40 percent of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate from four-year programs within six years. At two-year colleges, only 39 percent of students complete their programs on-time — only one-third of the population holds a college degree, anyway. The inability to access the financial support students need to finish school is a major factor in why students cannot complete their education. Another factor would include the fact that colleges are not providing enough support to help people keep up in college. However, the true problem is the rise of tuition — students need to take out more loans to cover their education.
The average price of tuition at a private nonprofit four-year college was $35,830 in the 2018-19 fiscal year, over double the $17,010 sticker price in 1988-89, according to the Trends in College Pricing 2018 report by College Board. The report further finds that the average public four-year tuition was $10,230 in the 2018-19 academic year, up around threefold from $3,360 from 1988-89. Free college does nothing to address this problem — indeed, it could be seen as the government agreeing with the price of tuition. If the value of college were to significantly appreciate, then higher tuition would be justified.
Subsidizing access to a system that doesn’t work — or indeed making it free — is not a good idea and may cause policymakers to pay less attention to the major problems that higher education faces. For example, free college does nothing to address the increased expenditures by universities on football stadiums, Lazy Rivers, administrators — administrators account for 41 percent of instructional spending — and other costs which increase the price of tuition. Free college also does not address the problem of making colleges accountable for their outcomes, either.
Right now, colleges can charge whatever they want for tuition, and students will either pay that amount or go to another college. Even if the student does not succeed, the college still gets to keep the money — in essence, the school has no skin-in-the-game. If a school fails to provide career support to a student and does not teach them necessary skills, then the student still has to pay back their loans. The conclusion from the book Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa highlights that students don’t learn close to as much as we may hope based on the price of college — many colleges focus on research and teachers, not the educational services they offer. Indeed, many opponents of the current system of higher education have called large universities “hedge funds with a college attached” — a hat-tip to the significant size of some endowment funds that universities have, and how schools should be focusing more on their educational services rather than asset management.
Overall, free college misses the idea of making college more affordable and manageable. Free college will charge future generations and taxpayers for the price of college and will have very little impact on changing the quality of education for the better. Colleges will be able to continue to charge as much as they want for programs, and will have no more skin-in-the-game if college were free. Perhaps they would actually have less skin-in-the game, as students would no longer be taking out as many loans to finance education — the economic attachment made many students hold their colleges to account.
Students May Not Explore Alternatives
Another problem with free college is that they will draw attention away from other viable options for students and perhaps put many people on the track to college who would not benefit from attending university. If public college was free, students will find it more difficult to make an informed decision about their education. This is because students — and indeed parents — will see that public college is free and perhaps favor it over private options with high-price tags. Students may also ignore programs such as Lambda School, Make School, and other vocational and coding bootcamp programs and schools because they will not have to pay for college, but they would have to pay for these programs. Many parents may simply refuse to pay tuition for private schools or vocational schools if their local college is free — either way, the student will go to college, and most parents would prefer to pay nothing than large tuitions.
The Oregon Promise program shows how these concerns could easily come to fruition. The program, now in its fourth year, is small like the California Promise program and also includes several restrictions for students. The Oregon Promise does not cover school fees or four-year institutions — it is specifically for community colleges, like most promise programs and free college proposals. The program costs Oregon $20-25 million each year, and does not restrict its programs to low-income students, unlike programs such as the Indiana Promise. In the first year of Oregon’s program, less than half of participants qualified for a Pell Grant, a form of financial aid for low-income students. If free college programs are not properly structured and articulated, then these issues would likely be realized in other programs as well, causing them to be targeted toward the exact people who do not need the assistance.
What Does the Future Hold?
This year, lawmakers have proposed free college programs in dozens of bills across 29 states and in the District of Columbia intended to create new or expand existing free tuition programs. The increased number of these programs makes it very difficult for students to evaluate which options — if any — are open to them, and many people are not even aware they qualify for these programs. Free college proposals need to be simple and expand access to college for everyone, not just select groups. The high eligibility requirements make it difficult for many people to benefit from these programs, and so most of the funding goes to people who do not need the financial assistance being offered.
The aim of free college is to help expand access to high-quality education for as many people as possible, but they fall short of their promises. Indeed, free college will only send a signal that the current behavior by schools is acceptable and does nothing to address the root causes of the rise of tuition. Moreover, free college will only send the costs of college further downstream for taxpayers in the future, which they will need to find some way to address. Further, free college may also cause many people to attend college who would not benefit from such an experience — after all, it is free — and may overlook other options available to them. If we want to develop a more educated citizenry, free college is not the answer.
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