Is free college really free for all?

“Free college,” “free tuition,” “free community college,” and “debt-free college,” have dominated recent discussions about college affordability.  Sparked by growing anxiety over rising college prices and increasing student debt levels, these proposals appear compelling, at first glance.  But what does “free” really mean, and who stands to benefit? 

From state governments, like Tennessee and Oregon, all the way to Capitol Hill and the White House itself, proposals for “free” or “debt-free” college, in some variation, abound. Just last week, former Maryland governor and presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley introduced a plan[martinomalley.com] to allow students in public colleges to graduate without debt, casting him alongside presidential candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Sanders supporter challenges Wyo. delegate allocation Snowden mocks Trump for refusing to debate Sanders MORE (I-Vt.), who has proposed free public college tuition[gpo.gov]. Although these proposals could enhance college affordability for many of today’s students, the current rhetoric overshadows the policy details that are core to achieving key objectives.

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When analyzing these efforts, it is important to recognize that they all mean something slightly different – “free tuition” is different from “free college,” which is different from “debt free.”  While Sanders proposes free college tuition, students may still need to borrow to cover other educational costs such as books, room and board, and transportation. On the other hand, a “debt-free” education would allow students to graduate from college without borrowing, instead paying for college through a mixture of public subsidies and an expectation of affordable family and student contributions. 

To truly be debt-free, a proposal would need to include non-tuition costs, such as living expenses and books.  Plus, student eligibility for Pell Grants and other need-based aid would need to be maintained on top of the debt-free guarantee. In other words, debt-free proposals would need to cover the full cost of attendance and supplement, rather than supplant, existing need-based aid. “Last dollar” tuition-free proposals that only eliminate the tuition not already covered by Pell Grants will result in larger subsidies for high-income students rather than for low-income college-goers.

Another shortcoming of the “free college” rhetoric is that it is often divorced from the primary driver of affordability: College costs. In recent years, college costs have increased by more than 213 percent, and 39 states have reduced support for public higher education. If not designed with social mobility goals in mind, “free” college discussions, coupled with these financing trends, have the potential to increase socioeconomic stratification within the system even further. Currently, two-thirds of low-income students are concentrated in our least selective colleges that have completion rates of only 28 percent. By contrast, only about one-third of higher income students attend such schools.

Many inequities contribute to this dynamic, and college prices are certainly on the list. Too many public flagships and selective colleges are simply unaffordable for most low- and moderate-income students.  Sticker shock and fear of loan debt force many students, even high-achieving ones, to opt-out of applying to or attending these institutions. Proposals, such as “free community college” or guarantees to provide “a debt-free option” overlook affordability at four-year colleges and could entice more low- and moderate-income students to cluster at the “free” options, further stratifying higher education into sectors for the haves and have nots. 

To be sure, any new policy design will likely come with a cost. As policymakers explore financing options, they should prioritize those students who rely on financial assistance to pay for college, before introducing the benefits to students whose families can contribute without some assistance. This approach ensures that the societal and economic benefits of this investment will outweigh the costs. 

These are the types of details missing from the current discourse – and these details are key to determining what the benefit really is and who actually benefits. If focused too narrowly on only community colleges or only on tuition and fees, or if designed to use but not expand upon current investments, such as the Pell Grant, “free” college proposals may miss this rare policy window to compel real transformative change. All the conversations around student debt and college affordability provide us with tremendous possibilities: The opportunity to make the process of financing college as similar as possible for low-income students as for those from high-income backgrounds.  And the chance to shrink inequality of opportunity and drive upward social mobility for those least well-served by today’s higher education system.

Increased investments in higher education and decreased student debt are good. Certainly, just having free and debt-free options on the table for debate was inconceivable not too long ago.  But it is absolutely essential that these proposals address the core issues of college affordability and socioeconomic equity across all colleges and universities.  After all, the debate should not be just about decreasing student debt; it should also be a way to enhance opportunity for the neediest students and advance the American ideals of equality.

Cooper is president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.  cooper@ihep.org  Voight is director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. mvoight@ihep.org

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