Don’t Dismiss the Value of Free-College Programs. They Do Help Low-Income Students


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Written By: Sara Goldrick-Rab and Michelle Miller-Adams

Separate reports released this week by respected Washington-based think tanks miss the mark on the free-college question. The Education Trust’s “A Promise Fulfilled”and the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s analyses of two statewide college Promise programs reach the same conclusion: Free college is failing low-income students.

We disagree.

These reports draw attention to one feature of today’s free-college programs — almost all of them award scholarships on a “last dollar” basis, meaning that need-based grant aid is applied to tuition before students can receive money from “free college” funding. In practice, this means most students who are eligible for Pell Grants and who are already enrolled in college do not receive any additional funds. These reports focus too narrowly on this single issue and in doing so overlook not only the many other ways that free-college programs benefit low-income students, but also their value to the larger project of making college affordable.

Both reports employ a narrow definition of equity, reflecting a traditional approach to assessing the impact of financial aid and a belief that money is well spent only if it goes solely to the lowest-income people. We share the commitment to ensuring that low-income students are supported but argue that this approach misses ways in which free college supports students far better than typical need-based aid does.

First, even when free college does not bring additional tuition dollars to low-income students, it helps many of them decide to go to college in the first place. Encouraged to enroll thanks to the clear messaging of free-college programs, they receive financial aid they would have missed out on by not enrolling.

Second, free college is partly about leaving behind that small American bureaucratic tragedy known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Efforts to simplify the Fafsa form miss the core problem: Means testing, by its very nature, requires application and verification processes. Insisting that people prove they are poor in order to afford an education undermines the entire enterprise. Moreover, the effort to assess financial need will always be flawed.

Plenty of people have far more need than is revealed by the Fafsa analysis used to determine financial aid. Many students above the Pell Grant cutoff struggle with college costs; a family making $50,000 is too poor to afford college but is often too “rich” to qualify for a Pell Grant. The lack of college affordability for middle-class students helps explain downward mobility for the middle class, the looming student-loan debt problem, and a growing crisis of food and housing insecurity on college campuses. A college degree can be a ticket to a more secure future, but only if students can complete degrees free from crushing debt. Making middle-class people poorer hardly increases equity.

Free-college programs are wise to take a new approach to college affordability. They seek to support low-income students but also to actually transform the systems where those students are educated. By amplifying the message that going to college is possible and valuable, and by simplifying the financial-aid journey by clearly communicating that tuition costs will be covered (not just “affordable”), they inject elements of a college-going culture at the secondary- and even primary-school level, elicit new student-support resources from schools and community members, and create incentives for colleges and universities to better serve their students. They also emphasize the importance and value of public higher education, which is crucial at a time when it is under attack.

Stakeholders in free-college programs care tremendously about low-income students — so much so that many of them are willing to upend a system that has long failed those students. They acknowledge that college affordability for the working class and the middle class and the provision of an educated work force to meet the competitive challenges of the 21st century are key aspects of equity.

Supporters of free-college initiatives also have an advanced understanding of the political economy of social programs, including financial aid, and they recognize that narrowly targeted programs often lack political support. The politics of resentment are strong, especially these days, and free-college programs need middle-class beneficiaries and middle-class voters to sustain them. The consistently declining value of the Pell Grant over decades is strong evidence of the need to broaden the base of support for making college affordable.

All of these factors suggest that it is unwise to use a narrow metric to gauge whether low-income students benefit from free college, as both the IHEP and Ed Trust reports unfortunately do.

A college degree can be a ticket to a more secure future, but only if students can complete degrees free from crushing debt.

Of course, proponents of free college want to go beyond the status quo and shift to a first-dollar model — without an application process — that includes supplements for living expenses (via either grants or supportive programs). The reason this has not yet happened is simple: It’s expensive. The statewide free-college movement is not even a decade old. Even the most well-intentioned states cannot afford to take this approach without the help of the federal government, which provides most current financial aid. Without the ability to repurpose the dollars now flowing into Pell Grants, or major increases in taxes, or uncommon generosity by major private funders, free college-programs will remain last-dollar propositions. So the federal government must help.

But in the meantime, free-college programs are helping low-income students. It is unproductive and unhelpful to those students to stunt the progress of this movement. It is also dangerous to argue against the very real needs of a middle class dominated by asset-limited, income-constrained families. We do not live in a perfect world, so we should welcome the paradigm shift and the very real incremental gains that free-college programs represent. This is not the end of policy innovation but rather the beginning of significant progress. It would be a shame for equity-minded people to take the wind out of the free-college movement’s sails.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University and the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Michelle Miller-Adams is a professor of political science at Grand Valley State University and author of Promise Nation: Transforming Communities Through Place-Based Scholarships (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2015).


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