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A free college tradeoff — what should the 2020 candidates promise?

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former Vice President Joe Biden and now Mayor Pete Buttigieg are the latest presidential candidates to roll out their visions for “free college” — a required calling card for Democrats since Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign.

But the recipes for free college differ, and the issue has become one way in which candidates distinguish themselves as either moderates or progressives. Klobuchar and Biden talk about free community college, while avoiding the debt forgiveness and free public university education for everyone promised by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Mayor Pete, seeking to carve out the middle ground, splits the difference, by promising free community college for all and a free university education for children of families making less than $100,000 a year.

Spiraling student debt, rising college prices and growing awareness that post-secondary education is the surest ticket to a decent job have combined to make tuition-free college an essential new element of public education. But who gets it and who pays for it are as much an issue today as a free public high school education was in 1858. That was the year the school board in Kalamazoo, Michigan, voted to tax residents to establish a free high school open to all students. Some Kalamazoo residents said “no” to taxes and sued to have the plan reversed. But the school board won the day, kicking off a 19th century education revolution.

Momentum for a second revolution, whereby taxpayers guarantee young people a “free” higher education, has built in recent years. Well before the promises of the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Kalamazoo in 2005 reprised its role as education innovator with the Kalamazoo Promise, a privately funded plan to send all the community’s high-school graduates to college tuition-free in perpetuity. Dozens of communities, and now many states, have followed suit. While Kalamazoo’s and other community-based programs include four-year college options, most state programs do not. This includes the pioneering Tennessee Promise, introduced in 2014, which limits attendance to two-year programs, mainly community colleges. These design choices have important implications that are not yet widely understood by policymakers.

From what we know about what makes free-tuition programs effective, it is clear that there are tradeoffs, especially around whether tuition-free college should be available to everyone – including the children of the wealthy – or targeted toward those with financial need. 

Education for all versus a “poor person’s” program.  We come down firmly on the side of “for all.” Targeting resources, while saving money and delivering essential support to those with the greatest need, increases program complexity, confuses potential customers and waters down the power of the guarantee to motivate action. And programs designed to benefit just poor people have been shown to be politically vulnerable. Universal-eligibility programs, while more expensive, are simpler to explain, bring more people into the process and enjoy more broad-based and enduring political support (think Social Security and Medicare).

Tennessee, along with several other states, has reconciled these tradeoffs by limiting scholarship use to two-year colleges — a decision that allows the state to put forth a powerful message of “free for everyone” while in practice excluding affluent college-goers who are unlikely to attend community colleges.

“Free” is a powerful message. The message that college is free does more than deliver needed resources. It motivates young people, their parents and even schools and communities to do what it takes to ensure students can take advantage of new opportunities. It works to bring many new participants into the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process, and signals that continuing one’s education beyond high school is expected and supported.

Keep it simple. The tension between a simple guarantee with straightforward eligibility and compliance requirements, and a complicated program designed to limit financial exposure or reward the neediest, should be resolved to favor simplicity. A program that can be explained in a few sentences will resonate more deeply with first-generation and low-income college-goers than a more complex set of requirements. Fine print and multiple conditions will discourage students from participating and can create confusion around messaging. It also makes program administration more expensive.

It’s more than the money. While a clear, consistent and early message about college prices can change college-going behavior, money alone will not lead to many more degrees. The path to college remains complicated, and colleges already struggle to meet student gaps in academic readiness. Many students also face life challenges –  including childcare, transportation, hunger or homelessness – that higher ed institutions are ill-prepared to address. Any federal free-college proposal must include resources for college preparation and access for K-12 students, as well as mentors, navigators, coaches and wraparound supports for first-generation and low-income college students.

The tension between the clear appeal of “free college for all” (and its concomitant high price tag) and the more fiscally constrained and targeted approach of free community college or needs-based targeting will continue to play out on the campaign trail. But there may be another way. We would suggest a “federalist” approach, with federal funding supporting states and communities in deciding what works best for them. This could take the form of a federal matching program that supports statewide free college and catalyzes more community-based promise programs like Kalamazoo Promise.

A matching grant program along these lines was proposed by Harvard’s David Deming in a 2017 paper for Brookings and recently introduced in Congress. Federal grant funding in this model could be used only for instructional and academic support. These are the key ingredients for improving outcomes among enrolled students as well as newcomers, which would also provide states with incentives to rein in costs while maintaining quality. 

It is time for the United States to create a new floor for what we deliver in terms of public education. It has been more than 150 years since Kalamazoo helped set that floor at the high school level. The free-college debate and the 2020 election may help make what Kalamazoo did for its community 15 years ago the new normal across the nation.

Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and professor at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University. John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a research fellow with Upjohn and nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Follow them on Twitter @mmilleradams and @John_C_Austin.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Free education Joe Biden Kalamazoo Pete Buttigieg Tennessee

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