The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Free tuition? Programs should focus on students who started and had to stop.

Members of the campus community walk near Duke University Chapel. (Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg News)
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College has acquired a bit of a bad name in recent years. Public and private institutions are becoming steadily more expensive, a phenomenon that is difficult to explain or justify. The argument that a traditional curriculum does not provide enough of the relevant “skills” for the workplace is so pervasive that people increasingly say they don’t want to bother with higher education. Several years ago, billionaire Peter Thiel began handing out grants that paid bright students to skip college and become entrepreneurs. These days, the argument goes, the promise of higher education is not what it used to be.

Meanwhile, in a classic contradiction, a head of steam builds behind the free-college movement. Governors of several states — New York, Oregon, Tennessee and Rhode Island among them — are promoting a tuition-free experience of two years or, in New York’s case, four, for virtually anyone who wants it. It’s a politically popular but risky approach: standards may be dramatically lowered, some students might attend because they can’t figure out anything else to do, and the degrees they get could turn out to be worth little more than what they paid for them.

But this conversation and these policies should place more focus on an important constituency: people who had the motivation to continue their education beyond high school and actually made it to a college or a university but failed to finish.

Around 36 million American adults, or 21 percent of 25- to 64-year-olds, have started on the higher-education track at some point but did not graduate. They have probably not realized the potential advantage of their efforts — the prospects for upward mobility and relative economic prosperity that ordinarily result from a college degree — and represent a huge untapped resource.

[Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch]

It is not clear exactly how many of the 36 million are close to completing a bachelor’s degree, but more than a third, about 12 million people, may already have either a high-quality, workforce-relevant postsecondary certificate or are “potential completers” with at least two years’ worth of college credits. (Typically, a bachelor’s degree requires 120 credits; for about 60 credits, one can often claim an associate degree from a community college.) If policymakers could figure out a way to push this group through, it would increase significantly the percentage of Americans with degrees and possibly inspire further leaps forward. This is critical because, despite the skeptics, there is no serious doubt about the value — to these individuals and the country overall — of higher education.

Research shows that degree-holders live healthier, happier lives. And it is well established that anyone in the United States who completes a college education reaps greater financial benefits over his or her lifetime. In 2011, a Georgetown University report noted: “A 2002 Census Bureau study estimated that in 1999, the average lifetime earnings of a Bachelor’s degree holder was $2.7 million (2009 dollars), 75 percent more than that earned by high school graduates in 1999. Today, we find similar numbers — but since 1999, the premium on college education has grown to 84 percent. In other words, over a lifetime, a Bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million.”

In 2012, when the country was emerging from recession, researchers found that unemployment among those who had recently obtained a college degree was 8.9 percent — not great. But it was far higher for those who had just graduated from high school, at 22.9 percent, and those who hadn’t finished high school — 31.5 percent. The trend is clear, but beyond these obvious economic advantages, a citizenry that is better educated and more engaged in community would be good for the long-term health of our democracy.

Why, then, have so many people suspended their college education? It is tempting to believe that the cause is exclusively financial, and if that were the case, it would be easy to understand why politicians believe they can fix the problem by making college free. But demographic studies reveal a more complex picture: According to a 2010 report, “Time Is the Enemy,” when college students attend school part time, as about 40 percent overall now do, life intervenes and tends to derail them from attaining a degree.

Indeed, according to the report, Washington state was the only one in the country to report that more than half of all its full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate “on time” — that is, in four years. (In most places, graduation rates are now more likely to be presented in terms of how many students have finished within five or six years.) When one considers that many begin their postsecondary studies with remedial courses that may or may not lead to students achieving their goals, that there is little or no advising available to nontraditional students at some colleges and universities, and that many students transfer from one institution to another, sometimes losing credits along the way, it is surprising that the dropout rate is not even higher.

Fresh thinking and daring initiatives are needed to change this. Beginning at the federal level, for those no longer enrolled thought to be a quarter to a third of the way through college, members of both parties in Congress should design a new, experimental program that makes it possible for what are known as “ready adults” to complete college at a reduced cost. In the same way programs have been designed to provide veterans with incentives to go back to school, Congress should create incentives for college-leavers of all ages to re-enroll, and for institutions of varied sizes and shapes, with different resources, to accommodate their transitions.

[I’m a college president. Betsy DeVos should help me deal with campus sexual assault.]

Yes, most students would still come back as part-time students, and it could take them two or three times as long as some of their traditional classmates to complete their degrees. But the federal and even some state and big-city governments could subsidize lower, income-based tuition rates, as could private-sector entities searching for better-educated employees. Instead of a situation in which there may be only one college adviser for every 400 students, universities could provide online, on the phone and after-hours counseling by a national corps of specially trained academic and lifestyle advisers to help the students avoid uninformed choices that slow their progress. Some states with enlightened policies on these matters have “reentry concierges” whom students can consult. More courses will undoubtedly have to be offered early in the morning, late at night and on weekends, when academic facilities are generally underutilized.

Because financial issues remain for many returning students, tax credits, forgiveness of existing student loan debt and additional subsidies for students enrolling in fields where labor shortages exist will have to be considered.

Even if these steps are taken, there’s no guarantee of new or improved jobs for everyone who wants one, with or without a degree. Many jobs being created in the United States today require a college degree. Having one is the surest way to become a viable player in today’s economy. In any event, getting additional education is a better bet than waiting for a return to the days of plentiful, good-paying factory jobs, or for the president to make good on his promise to cajole companies, one by one, into dropping plans to export jobs, or for trade with other countries to be completely restructured on terms more favorable to the United States.

This is not to prescribe a college education, or its equivalent, for everyone. Rather it is to suggest that a second chance for a meaningful credential should at least be available to those who have previously made a sincere effort to obtain one. The best investment for states that seek to provide tuition subsidies to students would be in those who have already started down the path of obtaining the knowledge and credentials that will make them more employable. The nebulous “skills” so often talked about are simply not enough.