Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, argues in favor of New York’s proposal to cover tuition for residents whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel 

Could a free college tuition plan do nothing to lower the price of college for students from low-income families? The question sounds absurd, right? Too many students across the country are dropping out of higher education because they can’t make ends meet. Some are going hungry or even homeless as they pursue school. Everyone needs relief. But according to an analysis by Matthew Chingos, the plan New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo just announced for free college tuition does literally nothing for low-income students.

Fortunately, he’s wrong. By assuming that a major policy change will not change the price for current students from low-income families, Chingos ignores three big shifts that will bring enormous benefits to them. Accounting for these three effects shows how the Cuomo plan helps this critical group of students, far more so than the status quo and even more than alternative proposals like growing need-based grant aid.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve spent countless hours studying the current financial aid system up close. I have listened, watched and analyzed how low-income students and their families experience the college financial aid bureaucracy.

Policymakers and advocates sometimes argue that all aid should be targeted to low-income students to do the most good for those with the most need. My research, described in detail in my latest book “Paying the Price,” reveals that this approach is failing.

The first problem is that the current aid system is confusing. Students do not know what college will cost until they have made the decision to attend. The message is essentially “Trust us. Once you prepare for college, do a lot of intrusive and difficult paperwork, and choose your school, we’ll make it affordable for you.” It takes a big leap of faith to believe such promises made by governments and students, and frankly many families don’t buy it.

Only 1 in 2 high school graduates from low-income families attends college, and many say they choose not to enroll because they don’t believe they can afford it. And they are right. Every year, low-income students file their FAFSAs only to learn that they will get insufficient support. That’s because programs like the Pell grant that are targeted to the poor have been underfunded for decades. And that underfunding looks to get worse. The Pell and parallel state need-based grant programs lack the political constituency to demand funding that aligns with their goals.

In contrast, free college programs like Cuomo’s are remarkably simple. Just like at public elementary, middle, and high schools, if you go to college at a public institution in New York you simply won’t pay tuition. Yes, Cuomo’s plan would still require that you file the FAFSA (a small American bureaucratic tragedy if there ever was one) and show you make less than $125,000 a year, but the outcome is crystal clear: no tuition.

That’s a message people can understand and hold government accountable for. Evidence from Tennessee, Oregon and Milwaukee’s free college programs indicates that large numbers of low-income people will embrace this message and finally go to college. In many cases, they will get the resources that were already on the table — but which they were not receiving because they did not enroll. This new enrollment from low-income students is overlooked entirely in the Chingos analysis.

Of course, tuition is hardly the entire cost of attending college. I have written extensively on the challenges low-income students face covering their living expenses, struggling to pay for food and rent. Chingos is right to call for more support so that students can cover these expenses. But critiquing the Cuomo plan for not including funding to address those things is off base. There is very little hope that any government education program will provide enough increased direct grant aid to address food or housing in the way it needs to.

Advocates have been calling for a doubled Pell grant for decades and gotten nowhere. It’s unrealistic and unfair to criticize the Cuomo plan for not providing direct funding for these things when it cannot use existing federal aid dollars flexibly. Unfortunately, the states are barred from taking smart steps like repurposing Pell grants to ensure more funds go to cover low-income students’ living costs. Only an act of Congress can help New York and other states do things like that.

Experiences with free college programs in other states suggests that the Cuomo plan will help low-income students cope with living expenses by galvanizing action from the colleges and universities. Free college creates a principle for broad-based political action. In Tennessee, community college presidents reported that when confronted with the likely increased enrollment from lower-income students, they decided it was time to put more supports into place specifically for those students by creating things like food pantries. In New York, SUNY and CUNY schools are already thinking this way. They are helping students obtain food stamps, fundraising for emergency aid funds, and engaging programs like Single Stop to help.

The other important way in which low-income students are helped by the Cuomo plan is that it brings together people from all social classes in a common program and policy. As I noted before, programs like the Pell grant that are targeted to poor people are chronically poor programs. This was first explained in the 1960s by Wilbur Cohen, a key member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and is much more than an “old saying” as Chingos calls it — it’s an empirical finding and a central concept in contemporary political science. Low-income people lack the political power of the middle class, and cross-class alliances that include the too often “missing middle” can shore up political support.

I have watched too many low-income students see their hopes and dreams smashed by the tragedies of America’s broken financial aid system. Middle-class students are struggling, too. Wise public policies — like Cuomo’s bold, plan for free college tuition — can begin the big job of addressing the problems of both groups. We are all in this together.

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