Assessing the true costs of free college

By: | Issue: August, 2018
July 31, 2018

A dramatic gap in wages exists between Americans with college degrees and those without them.

African-American and Latino students enroll in and graduate from college at considerably lower rates than do white and Asian students, even as they represent a larger share of the nation’s students.

One strategy to address this challenge has been to make college free through various “promise programs.” Eighteen states and dozens of local jurisdictions and institutions have established such initiatives.

But have they been successful and can they be sustained? A panel of educators and economists addressed that question in an event hosted by the FutureEd think tank at Georgetown University in June.

Dissecting the programs

“Free college is, obviously, not free,” said Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign and U.S. undersecretary of education under President Obama.

“Promise is paid for one way or another by private funds, public funds or some combination of both. They guarantee financial support and ideally cover as much of the cost as possible.”

The high cost has many states wary of being able to continue these programs.

Some states have established containment measures that narrow the field of eligible students. These include means testing, income caps or identifying students who participate in free or reduced-price lunch programs.

As a result, the number of eligible applicants may be only 3 percent to 5 percent of students statewide.

The guarantees generally include a stipulation that the students remain in-state after graduation. If they don’t, their funding becomes a loan that they are responsible for repaying.

Even with those restrictions, the promise programs continue to grow, which raises the question of whether campuses are equipped to handle the increase.

“If you have an uptick in promise students, but you don’t invest in the capacity to serve them, they may be left out of getting a seat at a college,” said Jen Mishory, author of The Future of Statewide College Promise Programs (Century Foundation, 2018).

Free tuition naysayers

Not everyone agrees that free college is a good idea. Harry Holzer, who served as chief economist for the Department of Labor under President Clinton, wondered whether promise programs can—or should—be sustained.

“What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Holzer asked. “About three-quarters of high school grads already start college careers without promise programs. It’s not at all clear, for the quarter who do not, that the reason is cost.”

Free college does not address the real problem—which is not access but rather “abysmally low” completion rates, he added.

“A lot of the money spent on free college could have been spent on programs to improve completion rates and outcomes—but they, too, are expensive. If you are throwing money at free college, you’ll have much less to spend on completion programs that work.”

Follow the still-ongoing debate on Twitter, search for the hashtag #freecollege.