The Complexities of Free College

Scholars argue in a new report that implementing a nationwide free college program is more complicated than it sounds and there are better ways for the government to support low-income students.

July 28, 2021
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(Note: This article was updated to reflect corrections that mischaracterized aspects of the Third Way report. The report is part of an ACADEMIX series, not the ACADEMIX Upshot series, as originally reported. The report was also focused on four-year colleges, not two-year colleges, as originally reported.)

A new report argues that a national free college program for four-year institutions would be fraught with political obstacles, implementation challenges and equity concerns, and it offers alternative policy solutions to ease the financial burdens of paying for college faced by low-income students.

The report, from the center-left think tank Third Way, is the latest in the ACADEMIX series “composed of research-driven papers that translate academic findings on the key issues facing higher education into a highly readable and relevant format for federal policymakers.”

There are now several hundred free college programs across the country, according to the report. President Biden has proposed a national program that would guarantee two years of tuition-free community college.

Christopher R. Marsicano, co-author of the report and an assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College in North Carolina, supports the idea of a free college plan, especially one targeting low-income students, but he doesn’t believe free college has a “snowball’s chance in hell of passing through Congress.”

“I think there’s a push, especially on the left, to frame college affordability as a free-college-versus-anything-else issue, which I think makes the political right bristle at the idea of doing anything around college affordability, because free college would be sort of the antithesis of free market forces in education,” he said. “We are supportive of federal investment in higher ed. We just understand that we have an affordability crisis on our hands, and at this point, what we need to do is get anything passed that will help students.”

The report asserts that a model that uses federal funds to cover tuition costs after states pay a portion -- like the plan Senator Bernie Sanders proposed in 2016 -- might penalize states that invest more in higher education. For example, Virginia appropriates $5,701 per student to educate 303,000 state residents enrolled in public institutions in the commonwealth, while North Carolina appropriates $9,018 per student for 392,000 students. Because Virginia’s net tuition is higher, however, it would receive more federal funds per student than its share of the tax base, despite spending less, according to the report.

The ways in which different states could come out as “net winners and losers” make the politics around free college “really interesting and muddy,” said David Feldman, co-author of the report and a professor of economics at the College of William & Mary. “Free college is a nice bumper sticker, but try writing the bill that puts it together and you see that the interests all of a sudden aren’t so simple.”

Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said states have invested in free tuition programs for years and the report presents an argument about a problem that “doesn’t exist.” He also noted that the concerns outlined in the report about free four-year college are less relevant to the most current Biden administration proposal for free college being discussed, which is focused on community college.

Under a free college plan proposed by the Obama administration -- on which Winograd suspects Biden's plan is modeled -- “states who have already spent a good deal of money on making college tuition-free, such as California and others, would be able to use the per-student reimbursement rate from the feds to further lower the cost of attending college by addressing some of the cost-of-attendance issues that don’t get addressed otherwise,” Winograd said. “It provides an incentive for states to invest further in their higher education system.”

Winograd called the report “deceptive” and took issue with the assertion that there isn't enough political will to implement a federal free college program. He pointed to a national poll of Americans conducted by the Campaign for Free College Tuition in January and February, which found that 81 percent of respondents support the idea of a federal program that provides two years of free community college tuition. He believes the poll results signals broader political will to implement free college programs.

“They’re arguing against a thing that is politically viable,” he said.

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The report suggests that underresourced institutions could suffer financially from a nationwide free college program, as well, because as the cost of providing an education fluctuates, they would not be able to increase revenue through tuition, and lawmakers may feel less pressed to fund higher education.

Private institutions could also suffer, said Marsicano. Low-income students can take advantage of federal financial aid at any higher education institution, but most free college proposals would not help low-income students pay for a private university, he added.

“Under our plan, students have more choice,” he said. “There are some really great private schools out there that are as affordable as publics, that have better four-year graduation rates than publics, that perform very well for low-income students and especially students of color. Under most free college programs, those institutions lose out, which means that those students who have chosen those generally smaller, generally high-touch educational environments also lose out.”

The report offers a set of recommendations that the authors believe to be more expedient. The authors suggest increasing the maximum federal Pell Grant by more than $1,400 to target low- and middle-income students and forming a federal-state partnership in which states that spend a certain amount per student are eligible for a block grant. They also propose a federal subsidy for underresourced institutions serving low-income students based on how many Pell dollars the institutions take in. The subsidy would begin to phase out as an institution’s endowment per student reaches a certain threshold. It would also take into account student success metrics.

Feldman, the report's co-author, said the federal government has traditionally focused its efforts on helping individual low-income students through federal financial aid. He believes implementing a nationwide free college program now would be a “radical departure” from the government’s current role that wouldn't provide the most expedient help for students and is focused on college access to the detriment of student success.

The report “is designed to introduce people to how complex it is to get the federal government this deeply into the funding of what historically is a state-level responsibility,” he said. “It is possible, but I think many people think it’s just like you wave a wand and we transform a system that’s evolved over 200 years into something brand-new. It’s not easy to do that.”


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