Higher Education

Free college idea picks up momentum

Adele Williams hears from a lot of her friends from high school about their struggles to afford the cost of college.

“I have a best friend who goes to a public university, and she’s in quite a lot of debt,” said Williams. Higher and higher tuition, she said, “is just a scary thought for people to face.”

Except for her. Williams doesn’t pay any tuition at all. She goes to Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, where students attend for free in exchange for working.

Her friends at other schools, she said, “are mostly jealous.”

Adele Williams on the hills above Alice Lloyd College, where she and her classmates pay no tuition.

Adele Williams on the hills above Alice Lloyd College, where she and her classmates pay no tuition.

Now the idea of college for free for almost everyone has unexpectedly leapt to the top of the conversation about the ever-rising cost of tuition.

Tennessee will make its community colleges free beginning next year. Oregon is moving forward with a study considering the idea.

A new report recommends that the first two years of public universities and colleges be free nationwide, and a nonprofit called Redeeming America’s Promise goes even further with a proposal to give every lower- and middle-class student a scholarship to cover the full cost of college.

“The rising millennial generation has been so deeply affected by student debt that they’re driving a conversation about this challenge,” said Morley Winograd, president of Redeeming America’s Promise, who said “well-meaning but what I would call Band-Aid solutions” aren’t enough to fix the problem.

The group led by Winograd, who was an advisor to former Vice President Al Gore and now is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, proposes redirecting existing federal and state financial aid and tuition tax breaks to give full tuition scholarships in specified amounts—$2,500 per academic year for community college and $8,500 for four-year universities—to every student from a family earning $180,000 a year or less.

That would come in just under the current average advertised full cost of public college and university tuitions, as calculated by the College Board.

The scholarships would be limited to two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree, encouraging students to graduate on time, which only a fifth of them do today at four-year institutions and 4 percent at two-year schools. Colleges and universities generally wouldn’t be allowed to raise their prices higher than the scholarship amounts, forcing them to control their costs.

Under the plan, which is backed by several Republican and Democratic former governors, Cabinet members, and congressmen, the students could take out loans to cover their living expenses, and repay them based on their incomes after graduation.

It’s an approach that’s also being pushed by University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist and higher-education policy expert Sara Goldrick-Rab and a colleague, Nancy Kendall, who urge in a new report that the billions of dollars in existing federal financial aid and some state money be redirected to make tuition, fees, books, and supplies free for the first two years of any two- or four-year public university or college and that students be given stipends and jobs to help them pay their living expenses.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall call this the free two-year college option, or F2CO.

Existing financial aid was created to help the lowest-income students, Goldrick-Rab said, at a time when middle-class and wealthier families had little trouble paying for college on their own. But tuition has become unaffordable even for them, she said, making the existing system all but obsolete.

“The people who are struggling to pay for college today go way beyond poor people,” Goldrick-Rab said. “There’s a need for a universal program.”

Don’t blow the college fund on a trip to Vegas yet, however.

The Redeeming America’s Promise scholarships would cover the full cost of tuition at public universities and colleges, not private ones, which are likely to oppose the idea. So might public institutions, on the basis that the plan would be a form of price control, or that they can’t handle, at the amount they are allowed to charge, the flood of students projected to descend on them. And such a sweeping and dramatic change would face an uphill battle in a divided government that has proven incapable of making even marginal policy decisions.

“It’s very difficult to separate the politics from the economics,” said David Breneman, a professor in the economics of education at the University of Virginia.

Breneman pronounced the free-college proposals “not realistic,” especially at four-year institutions (“That’s just La-La Land”), though he said they might stir up a helpful conversation about untangling the way the government helps students pay for college.

“When you look at what a mess we’ve made of student aid and how complicated it’s gotten and the loan craziness, it’s not surprising that people look back at those days when we just had low tuition,” he said.

Free-college crusaders counsel patience.

“No way is it happening today. To me the question is, will enough groundwork be laid today that it becomes something groups are working on for the next 10 to 12 years, and that eventually becomes a litmus test for people we elect,” said Goldrick Rab.

Winograd said more states could make public colleges and universities free sooner than that, mostly without federal involvement. Advocates in some already have proposed it, and many states are watching the free-college experiment in Tennessee, whose $34 million-a-year-cost is to be underwritten by a $300 million endowment paid for from lottery proceeds. (In Oregon, whose legislature has approved a study of making community college free, the annual cost is estimated at $100 million to $200 million.) “The political will to do it does exist, not necessarily in Washington, but throughout the country,” Winograd said.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive