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As the presidential debates heat up, proposals touting free public college seem to capture the candidates’ imaginations on higher education policy.

Positively, this indicates a willingness to increase funding for underfunded federal student aid programs. Critical federal programs, like the Pell Grant and the Supplemental Opportunity Education Grant, have chronically lagged cost-of-living increases, much less the growing cost of higher education.

Negatively, these proposals expose a willingness to limit students’ educational opportunities to state-funded universities that may not be the best option for all students. So, “free” really isn’t free as we understand the diverse scope of the higher education marketplace today. Instead, students’ choices just dropped by over 50 percent.

Having worked with nonprofit colleges and universities for over 30 years, I can attest to the need, and value, of a diverse choice in higher education for student success. Looking across the spectrum, some students flourish in a more intimate/mentoring environment that a private college provides, while other students thrive in a large public university setting.

We need a wide array of campus cultures to ensure all students succeed. A Brookings report indicates that students attending a nonprofit college or university perform well, graduate faster and are more highly favored in the workforce than their public university peers.

Is it really in the government’s best interest to attempt to funnel college-going students to taxpayer-funded universities by promising free education? The most recent data demonstrate the valuable partnership with the nonprofit higher education sector and the importance of public policy that encourages -- rather than restricts -- student choice and access.

On July 10, the National Center for Education Statistics released a study that explored several issues including time to degree for entering college students. First, the study noted that 65.1 percent of students attending private nonprofit colleges and universities graduated in four years or less, compared to 46.4 percent of students attending public four-year campuses. As well, the study reported that the median number of months it takes to complete a baccalaureate degree is 45 months at a private nonprofit college, compared to 52 months at a public university.

The study also provided some revealing findings on student debt. This is one of the few studies that takes into consideration both federal and private loan volumes. The study reported that students attending a private nonprofit college or university graduated with an average total debt of $32,500 compared to $27,900 at a public university. Even with $4,600 more in debt, the private nonprofit university students graduate earlier, and critically, enter the workforce faster.

According to NCES, 51 percent of private college graduates had secured a salaried position within one year after graduation compared to 45 percent of those graduating from a public university. It is worth noting that graduates from either a private nonprofit or public university enjoy exceptionally low (5 percent) unemployment rates one year after graduation. We know going to college makes a difference!

Does this mean that all students should attend a private nonprofit college or university? No. That’s missing the point. Education is not a zero-sum game. Our nation needs the diversity of institutional types that both public and private nonprofit colleges and universities offer. For instance, in Tennessee the private nonprofit sector enrolls 26 percent of the students yet confers 33 percent of the degrees. These institutions are critical partners in providing high-quality degrees in an efficient manner.

Consequently, the strength of the current student aid system is that it focuses on the student -- not the institution. First, the aid follows students so they can attend the institution that they believe best ensures their success. The financial support allows students to critically evaluate their higher education options and choose the one that best fits their academic and social needs. Robust student aid programs targeted at low- to moderate-income families significantly increase students’ opportunities to attain the best education possible, thus narrowing the privilege gap between the haves and have-nots.

Plus, the aid is targeted to those who have the greatest financial need. Some of the free public university models turn a blind eye to the wealthy benefiting from what is proposed to be another taxpayer-funded entitlement. Disregarding financial need will do nothing to address the wealth and privilege gap and will quickly place greater stress on limited funds.

To truly address the opportunity gap in America, we need to remain focused on the student and not manipulate institutional choice. By promoting free public university plans, the government would be restricting opportunity rather than expanding it. These programs would drive the majority of student enrollment to taxpayer-supported campuses with limited capacity -- restricting the freedom of academic choice to a wealthy few.

There’s a brilliance about our current student aid system. Students cannot become dependent upon it because it’s available for a limited time and for a limited purpose. Recipients must continue to perform well enough to meet their college's requirements for making satisfactory academic progress toward a degree to keep the aid in subsequent years. Finally, student financial aid results in a credential that benefits the student, society and the workforce.

Federal and state grant programs should partner with colleges and universities to provide opportunity for students to attend the highest-quality academic institutions for which they qualify. It may be a public university, or it may be a private university, but it should be up to the student to decide.

For example, this year Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, secured a $12.3 million increase in the Tennessee Student Assistance Award -- the state’s only need-based aid program. In total, Tennessee provides over $500 million in aid for students attending both public and private colleges and universities -- the key being they can choose the best option for them.

Private nonprofit colleges and universities have significant skin in the game when it comes to making college affordable as well. This past year Tennessee’s private colleges provided 80 percent of the grant aid to their first-time freshman students. Student access is best guaranteed through a partnership among federal, state and institutional sources.

Unfortunately, the myth persists that private campuses are unaffordable and possible only for the wealthy. In Tennessee, 11 of the 15 campuses serving the highest percentage of low-income first-generation college students are private nonprofit campuses. These students outperform their public counterparts.

Higher education is strongest when it provides a diverse set of institutional options to choose from. We need public and private nonprofit universities; we need elite and open-access universities; we need research and the humanities. Most of all, we need to enable students to choose the campus that best ensures their success!

Increased education attainment -- not just attendance -- is key to breaking the cycle of poverty in America. It is a good time in our nation when the political discourse is focused on making college affordable for all. The challenge is to be thoughtful and deliberate in developing policies to empower students, not limit them.

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