As the presidential campaign heats up, many Democratic presidential candidates are scrambling to see who can offer the most sweeping free college proposal.
Many are making the argument that extending access to public colleges is analogous to when the US created universal high schools. One hundred fifteen years ago, only one-third of children in the US who enrolled in the first grade made it to high school. The realization that competition with a fast-rising industrial Germany meant America would have to prepare everyone for vocations led the country to create the world’s first public universal schooling system. In just a generation, 75 percent of students entered high school.
Given that 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will soon require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, why not emulate our past and make public colleges free and universal, goes the argument.
In an industrial economy, extending access to a factory-model schooling system to assure a basic level of skills and knowledge made some sense. But in today’s knowledge economy with new postsecondary disruptive innovations emerging rapidly, traditional industrial-era colleges and universities don’t deserve such privileged treatment.
Today’s free college policies are misguided, as they don’t tackle the root cause of why college costs so much and could confine students’ ultimate choices to subpar options that, although appearing to be free, are actually quite costly—in students’ opportunity cost and expenditures for the American public.
1. It crowds out faster, cheaper options
By making a traditional, accredited public college tuition free for an individual student, it complicates students’ ability to make the right choices for themselves by privileging these traditional higher education experiences over new private options. These options are designed to be faster, cheaper (in an unsubsidized world), and optimized for student success, from programs like Duet, Peloton U, Concourse, College Unbound, Da Vinci X and Western Governors University to Kenzie Academy, Lambda School, Per Scholas and Techtonic.
2. It supports a subpar system
Free college might be fine if traditional public colleges worked well for students, but they don’t.
Although completing college has a tremendous, albeit declining, payoff, college was never built to help students succeed and complete. A whopping 40% of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate from four-year programs within six years. The rate is worse at two-year colleges, where only 39% of students complete. Eighty percent entering community colleges expect to transfer and earn a Bachelor’s, but just 29% do within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Yes, financial hardship is one of the reasons students leave school. But it’s not the top reason. According to a forthcoming research report by ReUp Education, a company that helps re-enroll students who have dropped out and then supports them through graduation (full disclosure: I’m an advisor to the company), life balance—juggling responsibilities outside of college—is a more significant reason students leave. And it becomes far trickier to keep one’s life in balance the longer a program runs—a major reason students need new, faster, and more modular postsecondary options than traditional college.
Other factors like professional commitments, health, lack of satisfaction with one’s school, and academics all play significant roles in students dropping out as well.
These factors might excuse colleges that don’t graduate students, but the reality is that some postsecondary programs get significantly better results than their counterparts with similar student populations that face lots of challenges. The bottom line is that colleges were unfortunately never designed with the supports, flexibilities, and instructionally-sound teaching and learning practices that many students need to succeed, which makes them a poor bet for unfettered government financing. Indeed, some faculty members continue to view their teaching roles as sorting students out based on who cannot succeed academically, rather than supporting students through a course and viewing success as being how far they can take students regardless of academic preparation.
On top of that, employers report a significant mistrust in the knowledge and skills that students who do graduate gain from college. As Ryan Craig has written, despite the current state of low unemployment, a significant skills gap that goes beyond just asking for a traditional higher education degree remains. Indeed, the conclusions from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s groundbreaking book, Academically Adrift, that students don’t learn nearly as much as we might hope in college, still are true—because colleges were built to optimize research and teaching, not learning (and there’s a big difference between teaching someone something and whether someone has, in fact, learned what was taught).
Doubling down by scaling existing colleges and universities that have flawed structures for the needs of today’s students through free college policies isn’t wise.
3. It helps those who need it the least and not those who need it the most
Most free college policies are regressive and don’t cover the costs that matter for students.
Making tuition and fees free to students is unlikely to move the needle much in terms of completion, as community college is already free to low-income students, where it is covered by the federal government’s Pell Grants; yet, we continue to see paltry completion rates. The policy proposals offered don’t address other costs that impact low-income students, such as those for food, health care, childcare and the like.
Instead, many free college proposals merely subsidize access for middle- and upper-income students. As South Bend, Ind. Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said during the second Democratic debate, “I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little tuition, and while I want tuition cost to go down, I don’t think we can buy down every last penny for them.”
There used to be a time when the Democratic party was concerned with making its policies progressive, not regressive. Apparently, not everyone agrees, though, when it comes to college.
4. It causes the country to add to its string of debt without addressing the underlying cause of college’s high costs
To this point, the reality is someone is still paying for college—it just happens to be the American taxpayer. And the country is already rolling in red ink.
The larger question the free college proposals miss is not how to allow students to afford college, but how to make college affordable. There’s a huge distinction. The focus should be on boosting the value of postsecondary education by making it less costly with better outcomes, such that the question of how to afford it becomes manageable. Today’s free college proposals merely charge education, in the form of debt for future generations of taxpayers, rather than change it. Charging education to the future isn’t changing education for the future.
The way to make college fundamentally affordable isn’t by pressuring current colleges to bend the cost curve of their traditional programs, but by unleashing the power of disruptive innovation, which is just emerging in higher education in the form of faster and less expensive last-mile training and on-ramp providers, coding bootcamps, online programs, and more. But, per the first point, free college could crowd those options out—or significantly stunt their growth.
5. It starves traditional public colleges of funding and causes them to decline
But wait, doesn’t free college mean money will flow to public colleges? Why will it starve them of funding?
The evidence from countries that have and previously had free college systems, such as Germany and England, is that pupil funding typically doesn’t keep up with the costs required for those institutions to remain competitive on a global stage. Governments tend to place caps on enrollment and caps on per pupil funding over time—and so the colleges decline in quality.
To read more about the phenomenon, you can read “Lessons from the end of free college in England,” from the Brookings Institution where the authors document why progressives there rolled back free college policies. Or you can read about the cost to German universities of free college policies in The Washington Post—despite students being, understandably, unable to imagine life without those policies. What’s so interesting is that 120 years ago, German universities dominated the list of top universities in the world—eight of the 10 leading universities in the world were located in Germany, according to Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. Today, there isn’t a single German university in the top 10 worldwide, and to find just one university from Germany, you typically have to look outside of the top 50.
Given the red ink already facing the country and the specter of massive pension and health care costs as increasing numbers of baby boomers retire, it isn’t hard to imagine this playing out in the US. Sure, progressives might argue it wouldn’t happen on their watch because they’d raise taxes, but history is pretty clear that progressives won’t always be in the majority driving policy.
Ultimately the free college proposals won’t achieve their aims and would exacerbate larger problems lurking behind today’s college costs, as they merely kick the can down the road for future generations to confront. Free college is the wrong strategy for helping students learn and gain the skills they need to be successful in their careers and in life more broadly.