There has also been conservative support. One notable example can be found in Tennessee, where the idea is being championed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Still, there are skeptics. For instance, lots of smart policy wonks and student advocates have written previously about why free tuition is either inadequate or even potentially harmful. And there certainly are conservatives who dislike this idea in the vein of “nothing in life is free.”
Among left-leaning policy wonks like me, there is also skepticism about free college, not because we think higher education is an elite benefit or because it’s too expensive, but because our battle scars in politics suggest that this beautifully simple concept could be implemented in ways that would make things worse, not better, for the most vulnerable students. And without some quick revision, it looks like that is exactly what might happen with the free college plan the New York legislature passed this weekend.
With much fanfare and the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) introduced a plan this year to make public colleges in the state tuition-free. This plan was lauded as the state-level embodiment of the Democratic Party’s compromise on the issue last year. Unfortunately, as some astute analysts have pointed out, this plan would convert the “free” grants into loans if a recipient eventually moves out of state. Sanders’s plan, reintroduced in the U.S. Senate, has no such provision.
This is just one example of the type of political maneuvering that could make this kind of policy counterproductive. There is also the possibility that sufficient resources won’t be offered to support the groundswell of students who would be encouraged by free tuition. New York’s budget deal includes a minimum-funding provision to alleviate this concern, but other states looking for the political spotlight might not be so generous. These proposals must include a plan for a groundswell of demand or access could be limited or rationed in inequitable ways.
The point of free college, as expressed by supporters, is to make higher education as universal as secondary education. To this end, free college does something that other college affordability schemes have failed to do: It cuts through the jargon and promises something palpable.
Unfortunately, without serious design considerations, free college tuition could have the effect of furthering stratification by providing a benefit to those who can already afford college without opening new doors to those who never thought college possible.
I know from both experience and my own research that too often, after the fanfare dies down and the announcements are made, the implementation of policy ideas gets overlooked and the original goals are forgotten. Programs start out as universal, then when funding gets tight, grade-point average requirements increase and testing standards become stricter. And too often, marginalized people become even further marginalized in the process of rationing.
In fact, we’ve already seen most existing free college efforts be primarily targeted at younger students, leaving behind millions of low-income adults who would undeniably benefit from free pathways, particularly at local community colleges. Tennessee recently updated its free community college program to include adults, an effort that should be imitated and applauded.
Since it looks like the concept is here to stay, policymakers would do well to consider the details of these plans carefully — and follow through in execution. Providing clear, affordable higher education is a laudable goal, particularly if it is backed with complementary funding and admissions policies.
It’s not the idea of free college we need to guard against, it’s the political sacrifices that might occur in pursuit of this worthy goal. Compromise isn’t bad, but too often the political sacrifices most readily available are those that don’t bode well for our most vulnerable citizens. The wrong trade-offs could move us away from the goal of increased access for the most marginalized people. Now is the time to put forward a truly progressive vision of implementation so that this doesn’t happen as the idea takes off.