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Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall have published a report, with the Lumina Foundation, in which they call for reallocating federal, state, and local aid to higher education. The hook of the proposal -- F2CO, for “first two years of college free” -- is that the money in the current financial aid system would be redirected to allow students to take the first two years of college at any public college or university free.  In other words, while it would be of particular interest to community colleges, it wouldn’t be exclusive to community colleges; the proposal would apply as well to the first two years of public four-year colleges.

As with any Big Fat Hairy Idea, it’s easy to pick details with which to quibble.  Instead, I’ll chew on what I consider the most conspicuous and central points.

First, the upside. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall are clearly right that financial aid often falls short of the true costs of college, and the shortfall is generally getting worse. That’s particularly true for adult students who have kids. Even at community colleges, which are usually the lowest-cost providers, living expenses frequently push students to work so many hours for pay that they lose their way academically. 

It’s also true that “means-tested” forms of aid, such as Pell grants, necessarily bring with them significant administrative costs. Just imagine if the public library charged different overdue fines based on income.  It would need an entire office devoted just to income verification.  But it doesn’t; it lends for free, and charges fines by the day.  As a result, the entire community thinks of it as its own, and its bureaucratic overhead is relatively small. Simplicity and clarity allow for greater political support -- since nobody feels excluded or cheated -- and lower cost. 

The version that Goldrick-Rab and Kendall endorse even includes income support for students during the first two years. (They would direct federal aid towards tuition and fees, and state and local aid towards books and living expenses.)  In effect, every American who wants one would be given a fellowship, with a modest stipend, for the first two years of public college.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall rightly note that there are significant payoffs to the first two years of college, measured both in labor-market terms and in quality of life terms.  They argue, plausibly, that much of the current college-dropout problem is either directly or indirectly financial, and that converting the first two years of college to a fellowship program would address that.  (They don’t use the word “fellowship,” but it seems appropriate as shorthand.)  And they note, somewhat coyly, that there has never been a better time to expand the higher ed workforce, since there is an entire generation (or two) of underemployed academics who would jump at the chance to help staff up public higher ed to accommodate the new demand.

So there’s that.

The point about staffing up, by itself, struck me as a little too easy. After all, the increased demand at public colleges would presumably come at the cost of decreased demand at private colleges. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall rhetorically shrug that off, noting that private colleges can always choose to devote more internal resources to helping students financially, if they want to. Which is true, if you assume that all private colleges are wealthy. But most aren’t. Most are tuition-dependent, and many -- if not most -- would quickly die under this plan.  One could argue the public policy benefits of that, but ignoring it seems disingenuous. So while it’s possible that public colleges would have to increase staffing, it’s almost certain that there would be massive waves of layoffs from private colleges either downsizing or folding. 

That’s more than a technicality. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall go out of their way in the report to note that although for-profits come under high scrutiny for costs, non-profit private colleges absorb far more financial aid per student than publics do. That’s why they specifically aim this proposal at publics.  I would expect the privates and their supporters to fight back, hard.

Working at a community college, I also have to raise an eyebrow at a term as seemingly simple as “two years.” Does that mean the equivalent credits for two years, or does it literally mean two years?  (Since the plan comes with a living-expense stipend, this is a real question.)  If students are essentially required to attend full-time, which seems to be the idea, then many working parents will be shut out.  If part-time attendance is an option, then I’d immediately expect issues to arise around stipends. The “two years” model also assumes that everybody passes every class on the first try; again, on the ground, I can assure you that it doesn’t work like that.  Would stipends be extended for students who fail?  If so, I can envision some pretty odd incentives developing.  If not, I see the clock running out fastest on the students who need help the most.

Obviously, repurposing existing funding to making the first two years free raises the question of what comes after those first two years. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall acknowledge that “it is not financially feasible to provide bachelor’s degrees for free without a significant increase in public funding for higher education.”  They make a few passing suggestions, including price controls, but largely leave the question for another day. Presumably, they’re assuming that when a huge cohort of students runs out of “free,” many will demand more education, and a softened-up polity will respond accordingly.

I’d also wonder about the loss of student choice of different institutional types. Publics are already struggling to be all things to all people; the struggle would be that much greater if fewer alternatives were available.  For example, in my neck of the woods, I don’t think there’s a single-sex public college or university; if you want that, you have to go private.  A clear religious identity can only ever be a feature of a private institution; make those inaccessible, and I’d expect serious blowback from the folks to whom that’s a priority. 

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall leave out any number of details, probably to keep from getting bogged down. In this proposal, for example, it’s not clear that community colleges would need to run scholarship programs.  They leave veterans’ educational benefits out of the discussion, which is a major omission in this sector of higher education.  I didn’t notice any mention of differences in regional costs of living.  (A stipend that may be livable in Buffalo might not be in Brooklyn.)  I also would have preferred some mention of the higher instructional costs for institutions with significant populations of students with disabilities; Goldrick-Rab and Kendall only make allowance based on low income, which is not the same thing. 

Still, there’s something to be said for attempting to shift the grounds of discussion.  The current system of higher education financing is unsustainable, exclusionary, and inhumane.  I’m not sure about f2co, but it strikes me as the right kind of conversation to have.

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