Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Free Sophomore Year, Redux

Someone challenged me recently to write out a fuller argument for a free sophomore year at community college as a state-level policy.  Here goes.

I’ll preface by saying that of course, an entire degree would be preferable.  But if that becomes impossible politically, this might prove both constructive and salable.  A free sophomore year at community college -- defined as the credits from 31 to graduation -- could be a politically durable way to increase both access and success.  

The most compelling cultural argument against free community college is that it feels to many people like a handout.  Handouts become politically vulnerable over time, especially when they’re means-tested. In part, that’s because people just over the income cutoff feel slighted and resentful. In larger part, it’s consistent with a long American tradition of distinguishing between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor, with all of the racial undercurrents that implies.

But benefits that have been “earned” aren’t vulnerable to the same degree.  We don’t generally think of Social Security as welfare, even though they’re both direct transfer payments.  

So, make free tuition something that students earn.  They earn it by first performing at an acceptable level in the freshman year.  If you can get to 30 college credits, the argument goes, you’ve earned help with the next 30.  Show us you’re serious by getting through that first year, and we’ll help with the second. Goof off in the first year, and no benefit for you.  

Making it an earned reward, rather than a handout, also eliminates the argument for an income cap.  That may sound tangential, but universal benefits are far more politically sustainable than targeted ones.  Look at public libraries. Bill Gates can borrow a book from his local public library for free if he wants to.  That’s part of what helps libraries survive. If you’ve earned that second year, then you’ve earned it, regardless of income.  If it’s universal, it’s much harder to look at it as welfare, and you’ve dodged the anger of people just above the income cutoff.  Without a cutoff, there are no such people.

And the argument about “earning” isn’t just politically convenient.  A free sophomore year rewards desired behavior. If we’re serious about improving completion rates, then let’s reward completion.  As my libertarian friends never tire of reminding me, incentives matter. A free sophomore year would align individual incentives with a larger social goal.

A free sophomore year also avoids the danger of leaving private scholarship money on the table.  Private (and other) scholarships could still be crucial for covering the freshman year, as well as expenses beyond tuition and fees.  Granted, community colleges haven’t done nearly as well with philanthropy as their four-year counterparts, but carving out the freshman year both increases the number of students a given endowment could support and retains the incentive -- there’s that word again -- for community colleges to improve their fundraising.  

A free sophomore year would also save considerable public money.  People who know the community college world know that many students transfer before graduating.  A student who transfers to Flagship State after a year and does the sophomore year there costs the state far more than a student who takes the sophomore year at Local Community College.  Every additional student who responds to the incentive to stick around at LCC for the second year before transferring winds up saving the state money. That means the governor gets to spend less and be seen as generous at the same time.  This is the rare and elusive win-win.

A free sophomore year would also do wonders for retention and completion rates at community colleges, helping with both enrollments and reputations.  Second-year classes often have room, so there’s little need to build capacity. This is low-hanging fruit.

Given my druthers, I’d rather adopt the Tennessee model.  But if that isn’t in the cards, a free sophomore year at community college could offer remarkable social gains at low cost, and in a politically sustainable way.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?