Ain’t No Free?

By John O. Harney

The New England Board of Higher Education recently honored Hartford Promise and the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship with 2019 New England Higher Education Excellence Awards. And NEJHE has been paying close attention to innovations—and challenges—facing such “free college” programs.

In June, the Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) lauded NEBHE delegate and Connecticut state Rep. Gregg Haddad for his work helping the land of steady habits become the 13th state to meet CFCT’s criteria for having a robust free college tuition program for its residents.

Under the budget signed by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, eligible students at the state’s 12 community colleges will be able to attend without paying any tuition or fees starting in 2020. Haddad co-chairs the Legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. He worked on the issue with Sen. Mae Flexer, Senate vice chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, after the two heard of the enrollment success at Rhode Island Community College under its Rhode Island Promise program. Sen. Will Haskell and Rep. Gary Turco also helped make the legislation happen. Connecticut’s program will provide a “middle dollar” scholarship to all recent high school graduates with at least a 2.0 HS GPA who fill out the FAFSA and take at least 12 credit hours each year. “If the student’s Pell Grant fully covers tuition, they will still get a $250 per semester grant to spend on other costs of attending college. The revenue to pay for this new program is expected to come from online lottery sales which have not yet been legally approved. But the budget directs the Governor and the State’s Board of Regents for Higher Education to find alternative sources of revenue should that idea not work out,” the CFCT reports.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Education Next Poll found 60% of Americans endorse the idea of making public four-year colleges free, and 69% want free public two-year colleges. “Democrats are especially supportive of the concept (79% approval for four-year and 85% for two-year). Republicans tend to oppose free tuition for four-year colleges (35% in support and 55% opposed) and are divided over free tuition for two-year colleges (47% in support and 47% opposed).”

A paper from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research explains that while college promise programs offer invaluable opportunities, “eligibility requirements and rules on whether funds can be used to cover non-tuition costs, can exclude students who are older, working, or who have children.”

Writing in The Conversation, William Zumeta, professor emeritus of public policy and governance and of higher education at the University of Washington, notes that “Washington state’s new college affordability initiative differs from the ‘free college’ efforts being undertaken by other states such as Tennessee and Oregon. In other states, such as these, Rhode Island and, soon, Massachusetts, the ‘free college’ initiatives are mostly limited to tuition-free community college for some students. But in Washington state, the Workforce Education Investment Act provides money for students to attend not only a community college, but four-year public and private colleges and universities.”

In a Chronicle of Higher Education piece titled “The Fight for Free College Is Your Fight Too,” Ann Larson, co-founder of the Debt Collective, called on academics to help win back the promise of college as a necessary and vital public good.

There are also critics of free college schemes. They include some families who had to scrimp and save for their children to earn degrees. And Bloomberg recently published this piece by Karl W. Smith, a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, under the headline: The Hidden Cost of Free College.

More recently, College of William & Mary economics professor David H. Feldman and Davidson College visiting assistant professor of educational studies Christopher R. Marsicano wrote in USA Today: “While free college has its benefits, its simplicity makes it a regressive policy that will most help the wealthy.”

Feldman and Marsicano propose instead: increasing the maximum federal Pell Grant by 50%; partnering with states by offering a federal block grant for higher education if states appropriate at least a certain dollar amount per full-time student; offering nonprofit colleges and universities that work with significant numbers of lower-income students a small operating subsidy equal to a percentage of the Pell dollars their students receive; and tying any additional grant subsidies and student loan interest rates to accountability measures such as graduation rates and gainful employment for students upon graduation.

Two other key resource for the movement are The Campaign for Free College Tuition and the clearinghouse for College Promise Programs at UPenn.

Expect to hear more about free college as the 2020 elections approach and student indebtedness grows. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaigned for free college in 2016. Most of the other candidates now call for at least two years of free college.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.



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