[This post originally appeared on the TEL Education website on March 18, 2019]
The current challenges facing the U.S. and the public’s conflicted concerns about college affordability may be summed up best in the title of this Education Dive post — Americans support free college yet think 4-year degrees worth the price.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans support free college, although a majority (60%) also think a four-year degree is worth today’s high prices, according to a new survey from the APM Research Lab. About 36% question its value, most often, they say, because it leaves people with high debt and without specific job skills.
In a nutshell, a majority believes that postsecondary education is a key to better employment and earnings yet they also realize that current prices make inaccessible to many and, thus, inequitable.
The cost vs. accessibility dilemma is punctuated nicely by a recent House Education and Labor Committee report that shows the cost of attending a public four-year college increased by 81 percent over the past 25 years while the median household income has only increased by 12 percent.
Addressing the growing tension between cost and equitable access is one of the major areas of focus for the U.S. House of Representatives as they look to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) bill.
“The goal of our work in this committee in higher education is not just to write a new higher education bill, it is to pass a comprehensive higher education bill. Accordingly, we propose to work together in a bipartisan way that produces a bill that can pass the House, pass the Senate, and be signed by the president. Students, families, taxpayers and institutions of higher education deserve a good-faith effort to address the urgent challenges facing the higher education system,” said committee chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
To be clear, a number of states are already putting “free tuition” plans into place to help their residents. Michigan is the latest state to roll out a free-tuition plan, joining initiatives in 20 other states to remove the cost barrier for residents who wish to earn at least n Associate’s degree.
While these programs, as well as the measures proposed for the reauthorized HEA, will help ease the burden for many U.S. citizens wanting to pursue postsecondary education, they are not without significant limitations.
- Current programs (existing and proposed) require significant amounts of public funding — Michigan’s plan will cost taxpayers between $80 million to $100 million annually. While this investment in its population can be supported when the economy is strong, it is not hard to imagine cutbacks when times are leaner.
- Current programs do not address the underlying issues of rising costs and legacy business models in higher education — As Mark Perry points out in this chart, the cost of a college education, even at public institutions, continues to rise disproportionately to other goods and services. This means that current efforts to provide free tuition and affordable options for college will be difficult to sustain. They will have a hard time keeping up with the inevitable rising costs necessitated by current business models.
- Current programs require constraints that make it difficult for everyone to participate — Some free-tuition or “promise” programs require students to pursue or complete at least an Associate’s degree, which can be an impediment for those who don’t know what they want to do and are unsure about postsecondary education in the first place. Other programs require GPA or test-score minimums, which prevent them from being accessible to all residents. Finally, free tuition does not necessarily translate to “free education.” There may be additional costs associated with institutional fees, course materials, or travel/on-site costs. These may prevent a “free” program from actually being affordable.
So, while “free” sounds good, in the current iterations it is seldom sustainable and rarely equitable. Given current constraints and models, it is unlikely we will be able to afford public support to continue these free tuition and federal grant programs at their proposed levels.
As an alternative, I suggest we shift our focus to a model of sustainable affordability and equitable access. Such a model would focus on (1) providing all-inclusive course pricing that is affordable enough to lower the barrier for anyone wanting to begin their college studies, (2) removing restrictive qualification barriers and replacing those with curriculum supports to prepare any dedicated student for college-level success, (3) eliminating possible logistical barriers by pushing the first year of college study into state high schools and requiring on-site, online, and blended options for all program courses, and (4) removing possible technology limitations by requiring all courses to be available in both digital and non-digital formats.
Such a model of sustainable affordability and equitable access would make it possible for anyone to get started with their college education, with limited barriers. This model would also facilitate the building of needed pathways to postsecondary education for all students. Finally, a focus on sustainable affordability and equitable access would require education providers to become responsible business partners in the affordable college process, encouraging them to develop new business models that align collaboratively and appropriately with federal and state programs.