Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The Other Side of Free

Robert Kelchen did a nice job of outlining the limits to “free” community college proposals, working from the perspective of the student.  Kelchen pointed out that student costs go well beyond tuition, especially at community colleges, but that most of the existing proposals don’t really address that.  

I’ll address the other side of free.  What do “free community college” proposals look like from the perspective of the provider?  How would they work for colleges?

Details matter, but in general, they’re dangerous.

Most of them are “last dollar” proposals, meaning that they’d fill in the gap between existing financial aid and the actual cost.  And many of them have relatively stringent academic eligibility requirements, in the name of preventing subsidized slacking.  

In the best case, they’d be scholarships that will fill in whatever costs are remaining after, say, Pell grants are used.  (I’m still a little dubious about counting loans as “aid.”)  If that happens, then the only real cost to the provider is monitoring whatever criteria the scholarship requires.

I don’t want to understate that.  Financial aid is already complicated by students who “swirl” among institutions, who stop out mid-semester, and who walk away without bothering to do official withdrawals.  Add, say, a 3.0 GPA requirement, and it’s another thing to monitor.  All that monitoring requires staff -- the dreaded “administrative bloat” -- which costs money.  Does the GPA include second attempts at a course?  Remedial courses?  The details multiply quickly.

But experience tells me that, over time, it would evolve into an underfunded or unfunded mandate to the colleges.  If that’s where it goes, I’d rather not.

Community colleges, as a breed, are underfunded already.  Requiring them to serve more people for free will only make things worse.  

I’m also unconvinced on the politics of it.  If “free” community college is restricted to a relatively small group of students, it will quickly generate resentment.  If it’s widely available, then I’d expect serious pushback from four-year colleges and all manner of other providers.  

Happily, I have an alternative that’s easier both politically and administratively.

Instead of setting aside a few students for freebies while everyone else pays ever-increasing tuition, how about...a commitment by states to return their funding levels to those of, say, the late 1990’s?  In return, colleges could not increase their tuition or fees for a set amount of time.  Let’s say, fifty percent state support in return for a five-year tuition freeze.  (Obviously, the numbers would have to vary by state.  I’m not sure how it would work in states that support community colleges through millages, for example.)  

A tuition freeze is easier to sell than a repeal, simply because it’s applied evenly to everybody.  And it’s MUCH easier to administer.  It would maintain the value of Pell grants, and make a headline that nearly everybody could understand immediately.  Letting prospective students know that this year’s bill will also be next year’s allows for both planning and hope.  

The danger, of course, is that legislatures would take the tuition freeze without ponying up the operating money to make it possible.  But that’s not a given.  Here in Massachusetts, the legislature has committed to increasing its proportionate support of UMass in the name of reducing tuition/fee increases.  I see no reason at all that such a deal has to be confined to the research university sector.  It would work just as well here.

Promises of making things free don’t make the costs of provision go away.  Employees still have to be paid.  I’ve seen too many unfunded mandates come down the pike to have much faith that promises of “Free” won’t amount to more.  But promises of stability, tied to serious funding schemes, could accomplish almost as much good with much less blowback.  And the students would see, and receive, a benefit they could understand and use.

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