Most Free College Proposals are an Opportunity Squandered

The free college thing seems like exactly the kind of red meat that a left-sided politicians would toss out during an election campaign. But to be frank, free college also seems like exactly the kind of systemic change that our society needs right now.  After all, the last few decades have produced an ugly combination of skyrocketing college costs, crushing student debt, and an admissions process that makes most ponzi schemes look benign. But not all free college proposals are the same. In this post I’d like to focus on the free college proposals that would pay the cost of tuition for anyone who wants to enroll as a full time college student, as opposed to the proposals that would dramatically increase the size of the Pell Grant (we could go off on the fact that the real cost of going to college includes many more expenses than just tuition, but let’s save that rant for later).

Old-school public policy experts often criticize free college proposals that would provide universal access to college by pointing out the indiscriminate nature of “who” benefits. They say that subsidizing the cost of college for people who clearly have more than enough money to pay for it on their own is a waste of public funds. At their core, these criticisms start with the presumption that public money ought to be spent as precisely as possible, so that the only people who receive the benefit are those who could not gain access any other way.

Although this question is worth contemplating, there are plenty of instances where policy makers have decided that providing a particular benefit to everyone regardless of an individual’s ability to pay is worth the extra public expense. In the case of providing free access to a high school education , we decided at some point in the distant past that this was important enough to make it a universal benefit and pay for it out of public coffers (again, we can save the rant about how the quality of high school education in this country is desperately uneven for another time). Some argue now that it is now time to extend that logic to some or all of a post-secondary education.

In the case of the free college debate, I think it’s entirely reasonable to argue that our long-standing policy to provide free access to primary and secondary education should be expanded to include post-secondary education. After all, we know that most jobs now require some sort of college degree and that people with college degrees generally make more money over the long term than people who don’t. I don’t want to regurgitate the entirety of a economics textbook here, but suffice it to say that more people with a college degree of some sort is pretty likely to mean more public money (in the form of taxes paid)  to spend on important stuff, like (among other things) education.

But I’d like to ask a different question of the free college proposals being tossed out there at the moment. Because embedded in each of these free college proposals is the idea that the “free” part only applies to a particular type of institution. In some proposals, it’s just public community colleges. In the others, it’s public two- or four-year colleges and universities. Either way, students only get “free” anything if they go to a public higher education institution.

I don’t think most of the people jumping at the idea of free college fully grasp the potentially impact of these proposals. Because, the deal isn’t “free college anywhere you can get accepted,” or “free college at the institution that appears to be the best fit for you.” Rather, the key caveat in most of these proposals is that it’s “free college only at a school where the policy has designated the education to be free.” This would likely set in motion a seismic shift toward a starkly different reality given the existing landscape of higher education.

First, if a free college proposal only covering public institutions’ tuition becomes a reality, enrollment at public institutions will almost certainly grow at the expense of private colleges. While most public institutions have the capacity for a jump in enrollments (i.e., non-elite, regional public universities across the country increasingly face enrollment woes), the corresponding drop in enrollments at private institutions would devastate many that are already running an exceedingly tight (and sometimes even efficient) fiscal ship. Moreover, this enrollment swing would disproportionately hit the non-elite, non-affluent private colleges scattered across rural America, producing an even bigger educational desert problem (the lack of access to a higher education institution within a reasonable commuting radius). Instead of improving universal access to higher education, a policy that squashes rural higher education would simple exacerbate an existing vacuum, and reproduce a higher education version of the existing absence of rural health care.

Second, these free college proposals limit themselves to the same subset of institutions that consistently produce lower four-year graduation rates than their small, private institutional peers.  A wealth of research on college student learning and optimal educational design suggests that larger, especially the kind of “larger” that the flagship public universities are known for, is not better for student success or student learning. Moreover, the smaller learning environments that are the hallmark of smaller private colleges tend to be particularly effective for lower-income, first-generation, and minority students.

So why embrace a policy that would push many rural colleges even closer to financial implosion, especially when those very institutions could be immensely useful in making higher education more universally accessible to rural and urban populations alike? These institutions present an ideal opportunity to expand access to rural populations, especially first-generation populations that often prefer going to college closer to home. And given the smaller size of these institutions, they could be ideal ways to provide better fit educational experiences to more students from elsewhere who would most benefit from such a setting.

Arguing that those private institutions are too expensive only demonstrates a lack of understanding about the realities of today’s college prices. Those rural private colleges, although they certainly shoot themselves in the collective foot by posting high sticker prices, regularly offer actual prices that are competitive and sometimes even less expensive, than the in-state public institution options.

If we want to ensure maximal access to higher education, it makes much more sense to combine a substantial increase in Pell Grants with a policy that effectively motivates colleges to prioritize efficiency and frugality over wealth and prestige. Suggesting that the best way to solve the college access and affordability problem by making only public institutions free seems to merely trade one set of problems for another and squander an opportunity to utilize the existing diversity of higher education institutions to truly provide access and affordability to all – no matter where they live.