Sunday, March 26, 2017

My Greatest Hesitation About Free Community College

I like the concept of free community college a lot.  I send my kids to free junior high school and free high school, so I’ve seen the benefits of free education firsthand.  (For that matter, my entire k-12 experience was free, too.)  Heck, without tuition waivers, I never could have attended graduate school.  

And I (and my kids) have had a better deal than many.  Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work has demonstrated consistently that we have a double-digit percentage of students whose housing is insecure when it exists at all.  When it’s an open question whether you’ll have a place to sleep tonight, tuition is otherworldly.  Yes, there’s financial aid, and hooray for that, but it’s slow and lagging.  Eliminating tuition bills altogether would help tremendously with access.

I’m utterly unbothered by the objection that some wealthy people would also benefit, for the same reason that I’m utterly unbothered when wealthy people send their kids to public k-12 schools, or when they take out books from public libraries.  When the wealthy and powerful see a public institution as offering something meaningful for them, too, they’re likelier to support it.  “Targeted” aid creates an impressive bureaucracy to verify those targets, and creates resentment among those who don’t get the benefit. (Anecdotally, some of the worst resentment of income-based benefits comes from people who are just barely above the cutoff to get them.) Universal benefits do neither.  If the cost of free access to excellent institutions is that some rich folks benefit too, I’m completely fine with that.  If anything, it’s an insurance policy against future punitive austerity.  I say, welcome!

I”m also unbothered by the objection that free college isn’t really free; someone is paying for it.  The same could be said of k-12, public libraries, fire departments, and road plowing.  Like those other things, the benefits of broad provision accrue not merely to those who actively use it.  Employers benefit from having an educated workforce; taxpayers benefit from other taxpayers paying into the system instead of drawing from it; the polity benefits from an educated citizenry.  I may never enroll in a nursing program, but I benefit from having a good supply of well-trained nurses in my community. Yes, public benefits cost money.  But there’s a meaningful difference between paying a la carte and participating in a universal benefit.  

The “skin in the game” argument strikes me as mostly off-point.  That’s the argument that says that in order to value something, you have to pay for it. But even without tuition, students pay for school. They pay in the opportunity cost of paid work foregone.  They pay in effort.  Nobody who attended graduate school should fall for this argument.  When I was at Rutgers, the grad students in the Geography department did a t-shirt to show team spirit.  It was styled as a Turnpike exit sign.  The shirt said “Exit 9, Rutgers University: Reduce Speed, Pay Toll.”  If there’s a pithier or more accurate summary of graduate school, well, I haven’t seen it.

The one argument that gives me pause is the loss of institutional control over its own budget.

When tuition exists, it can be increased.  Colleges get a lot of flak for that, and I won’t defend what some of them have done.  But when budgets are built on the assumption that the state and/or local funding entity would keep up with costs, and they’ve fallen badly short for years, colleges are put in a difficult spot.  Having the autonomy to raise tuition (and/or fees; for present purposes, I’m not making a distinction) can blunt the impact of external cuts or freezes.  It’s an option for adjusting the “top line” in order to make the “bottom line” balance.  

Take that option away, and a college is entirely at the mercy of its external funders.  That may be okay when you have sympathetic political leadership in charge, and you’re coming off years of economic expansion when the tax rolls are healthy and community college enrollment, always countercyclical, is low.  But when a less sympathetic administration takes power, and/or a recession hits with the one-two punch of lower tax revenues and higher enrollment, a college without tuition is a college without a safety net.  Some of my counterparts in K-12 know this drill all too well, although their enrollment tends to be less volatile.  

I suspect that’s part of the reason that most of the free community college programs and proposals I’ve seen are built on “last dollar” grants, meaning that students first apply for and use any financial aid they can get from the feds and the state, with the college pledging to fill in any shortfalls.  In that context, raising tuition will generate a bit more from the feds and the state.  Going entirely free -- the public library model -- would leave federal and state money on the table, and would expose the college entirely to the whims of local politics.  In most of the country, over time, that’s a risky bet.  

Wise and worldly readers, is there a reasonably elegant way around this dilemma?  Assuming that the sands of politics are ever-shifting, is there a safe and sustainable way for community colleges to go entirely tuition-free?