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Sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones.

Regular readers won’t be shocked to see that I’m intrigued by Jerry Brown’s plan for a first year of community college in California. The reports I’ve seen are a little sketchy, but it sounds like students would have to take at least 12 credits per semester, and partake in mandatory advising. The goal, obviously, is to increase enrollments, with a long-term goal of generating a more educated citizenry and workforce.

I like the idea, naturally. For states with somewhat more limited resources, though, I’m wondering if flipping the model on its head might be a useful alternative. Buy a year, get one free.

The advantage of Brown’s plan is that it helps get students in the door. For certificates that can be completed in a year or less, it could cover the entire cost of the credential; that’s no small thing.  But for associate’s degrees, it looks like an attrition generator. It imposes a significant cost increase just as students are entering the home stretch. (To be fair, California’s cc tuition is among the lowest in the country, so the hit is smaller there than it would be elsewhere.) I foresee a massive spending project resulting in disappointing completion rates, which would become an easy target the next time the political winds shift.

But what if the second year -- credits 31-60, say -- were free, instead?

The upfront cost would be much less, because it wouldn’t cover students who walk away after a semester or two. But the message to students would actually be positive. Show us you’re serious, the program would say, and we’ll help you finish.The free second year is earned by the successful completion of the first. It looks less like a freebie and more like a reward. It answers the cultural desire for “skin in the game” by having students work for it.

It would help fewer people upfront, but it would lead to much higher completion rates. Instead of an expensive program that would generate dropouts, this would be a cheaper program that would generate graduates.

I’m basing the idea on the statistic that shows that the highest student loan default rates are among the students with the lowest balances. That is, among dropouts.  I’m firmly convinced that students who complete a degree are in better shape economically than students who don’t.  I’m not convinced that students who do a semester or two, and then drop out, are necessarily better off.  If they leave with a smattering of credits and some student loan debt, they might not be any better off economically than if they hadn’t started. (Even with free tuition, many students need to borrow to cover the opportunity cost of paid work they gave up to attend classes.) Given the expense of a program like Brown’s, I’m concerned about the value of the payoff.

Making the second year free, instead, both rewards tenacity and increases the chances that those who start, will finish.  

The politics of it may be more sustainable, too.  When the political winds shift, as they do, anything that smacks of a “handout” will be vulnerable. But it’s harder to attack benefits that have been “earned.”  Requiring, say, successful completion of 30 credits with a GPA of at least 2.0 (or whatever) to get the benefit makes it seem earned.  It’s more consonant with the larger culture, and therefore -- and I’ll admit this is an educated guess -- less vulnerable politically.   

Fund it on a “last dollar” basis, give it a dedicated funding stream, and reject any sort of compensatory residency requirement, and I’m thinking BOGO could be a winner. It would allow students and families to plan, and would reward desired behaviors.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two serious objections. The first, mentioned earlier, is that it wouldn’t make sense for short-term certificate programs. The second is that it may wind up benefitting those from middle class backgrounds more than those from low-income backgrounds, given rates of attrition in the first year.

The argument about certificates strikes me as true, but manageable. Only apply BOGO to degrees. In the case of stackable certificates, maybe they get one year overall. The second objection is more serious, but unlike many other forms of aid, this one would be politically and culturally sustainable in a headwind. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

New Jersey will elect a new governor next month. I happily offer this idea to any candidate who would like to try it.  


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