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Free-college programs are valuable, but must be done right

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In the years that followed the most recent recession, an astonishing 95 percent of net new jobs created went to workers with at least some college learning. That’s an economist’s take on what far too many high school graduates already know — that, without education beyond a high school diploma, the job landscape is bleak.

That concern is especially urgent for lower-income students, who are five times more likely to wind up without a college degree than their more affluent peers. Wisely designed free and debt-free college efforts have been proven to change the odds enormously, with significant implications for individual opportunity and for state and local economies. It’s a trend that has the nation’s attention — but it takes more than money and will to get it right. There’s much to learn from the experience of early adopters such as my home state of New York.

{mosads}Since President Barack Obama called for free community college in his 2015 State of the Union address, more than a dozen states and many more local communities around the country have embraced some form of free college. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton included versions of debt-free college proposals in their presidential platforms in 2016. It’s not just Democrats or blue states. In fact, President Obama’s proposal was inspired, in part, by the Tennessee Promise program launched in 2014.


Thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York is leading the charge. Last fall, the first crop of New Yorkers enrolled using the Excelsior Scholarship, which makes a two- or four-year degree tuition-free for working- and middle-class families across the state. It’s early to draw broad conclusions, but initial signs are promising: Freshman students are taking more credits, and applications for enrollment are up significantly.

But what’s clear is that making college debt-free for students, along with crucial supports, can bring enormous payoff for students and communities. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which provides everything from career counseling to metro cards, as well as tuition and fee waivers. According to a well-respected study, for students enrolled in one or two remedial courses, rates of completing an associate degree doubled — while actually lowering the cost per graduate. Given higher economic productivity and fewer drains on public agencies, a study found taxpayers gained $3 to $4 for every dollar they invested in the program.  

So what does it take to get debt-free college right?

First, in a world of inevitably scarce resources, we must remain focused on who most needs our help. That means making sure such programs genuinely benefit both low- and middle-income students.

With college costs skyrocketing and wages stagnating, even students from relatively well-off families are graduating with crippling debt. In fact, middle-class families — especially in expensive states like mine — often fall into a longstanding financial aid gap, too well-off for aid but not rich enough to pay for college. Moreover, K-12 education advocates (myself included) have learned the hard way that programs designed narrowly to benefit the most disadvantaged students often collapse without a broader, more politically powerful constituency.

While we must avoid pitting middle- and low-income students against each other, we also must take care not to further disadvantage those who start with the least. As currently designed, the Excelsior Scholarship acts as a “last dollar” program, kicking in after students have exhausted other aid such as Pell grants and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program. That basic structure wisely stretches limited state resources as far as they will go.

But it also has the curious effect of providing the most aid to the students who are best-off. Students from low-income families often struggle mightily to afford bare necessities such as food, housing and school supplies. As we expand, improve and adapt these programs, we should avoid inadvertently punishing students who have access to Pell grants and other assistance; free-college programs should go beyond tuition to cover room, board and books.

Second, the design of debt-free college programs must recognize that many of the students most in need of help are well past age 18 and, often, already parents themselves. Nearly half of today’s college students are 22 or older, and more than a quarter have children. To cope with a changing economy, we need to be constantly improving how we educate returning students, working parents and people displaced by technology, trade or other macroeconomic factors.

Yet, policy hasn’t caught up. Although the Excelsior Scholarship has helped approximately 17,000 New York students — including roughly 5,000 community college students — I’ve heard from too many others who don’t qualify because they attend college part time or with interruptions. Free-college programs must be designed around the needs of such students if these programs are to help those who need it most.

That problem is particularly pronounced among students at community colleges which, despite President Trump’s willful ignorance, play a critical role in educating nontraditional and disadvantaged students. Credit requirements can help keep students on track for graduation, but we cannot let them lock out would-be learners.

Finally, we must be forward-thinking. We know we need to make education and career readiness beyond high school the norm for every American. But that doesn’t mean every student will get a two- or four-year degree. Free-college programs should be malleable enough to evolve with innovative models of training and apprenticeship while safeguarding quality.

And we must recognize that we will throw away a valuable investment if we turn our backs on  the roughly 365,000 students now in high school who are covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to Migration Policy Institute estimates. These students are a huge potential benefit to our communities and the nation’s economy; it makes no sense to deny them a path to college, including in-state tuition rates.

Having identified some of these challenges and questions, I want to be clear: None of them should stop us from forging ahead with making college debt-free. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the desire to get it perfectly right from the start. Like other landmark public policy advances, the first version will not be the final version. But we must press forward. Our future depends on it.

Dr. Merryl H. Tisch is vice chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees. From 2009 to 2016 she was chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Higher education in the United States Hillary Clinton Pell Grant Student financial aid

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