Free college is a lovely, sensible notion — but countries seem capable of embracing it only when enough of their top earners pay 50 percent or more of their income in taxes. In the United States, New York is the sole state to have taken the step of offering to cover tuition at all its public colleges and universities. And even this new benefit, the Excelsior Scholarship, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law last month, helps only a small fraction of the state’s residents — households earning less than $125,000 that are not already covered by financial aid — and their grants convert into loans unless graduates both live and work in the state for as many years as they benefited from the program. It also does not cover living costs.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school.
“When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14.
Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. But globalization and automation are decimating those jobs. Even manufacturing work that remains in (or returns) to America requires knowing how to operate the computers that run today’s factory floors, at least if you expect to earn anything close to a living wage. “It’s hard to do almost any job now without a 13th or 14th year of schooling,” Goldrick-Rab says. The establishment of universal high school in the early 20th century helped the United States economy surge past those of countries in Europe and elsewhere that lacked a similar educational standard. Making 14th grade the new 12th grade might be essential if the United States is to maintain its status as an economic powerhouse.
In 2015, someone in the United States who had no more than a high-school diploma earned about $35,600 on average. By comparison, an associate degree from a two-year college translated into $44,000. A graduate from a four-year college averaged just under $65,500. Is it any wonder that the children of the working poor take on frightening amounts of debt in pursuit of post-secondary-school degrees?
Low-income students used to be able to go to college for close to free. In the early 1970s, the federal Pell grant — created to help those of modest means continue their education beyond high school — covered more than the entire cost of community college and about 90 percent of what it took to attend a four-year state school, including room, board and books. Nowadays, a full Pell grant, worth $5,815 this academic year, pays for less than one-third of the annual cost of a four-year public institution. Even after grants and scholarships, the typical family making less than $30,000 needs to pay 77 percent of its income to cover the costs of a four-year public college, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist by training, started thinking about fixes for the price of higher education around 2008, when she started following 3,000 Pell recipients who entered a community college or publicly financed four-year program in Wisconsin. Six years into her project, only half of them had completed their studies. The subjects whom Goldrick-Rab featured in her book “Paying the Price” last year worked so many hours just to cover their bills that most of them never had a chance. “Community college is where the working class gets stuck,” Goldrick-Rab says. “It’s where the lower middle class gets stuck.”
Barack Obama understood the importance of community colleges, which teach one-quarter of the country’s undergraduates, when he floated the idea in 2015 of making them free. So did the Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, when he signed a bill in 2014 that made community college tuition-free for recent high school graduates. (This month, the Legislature approved his plan to expand the benefit to those 24 and older.) If nothing else, the Great Recession underscored the importance of all those job-specific associate degrees and certificates — typically granted for programs that can be completed in less than two years — offered by community colleges. An astonishing 99 percent of the jobs created during the recovery, according to a 2016 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “have gone to workers with at least some college education.” Anthony P. Carnevale, the center’s director, says as an example that available jobs in the health care support field have meant that those studying to be an occupational therapy assistant or radiology technician often earn more on average than those with a bachelor’s degree. The same holds true, he adds, for a recent graduate who earned a certificate in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning. “We found 30 million jobs in the economy that begin at $35,000 a year and offer a career pathway but don’t require a B.A.,” Carnevale says.
Goldrick-Rab first laid out her free-college idea in a 2014 paper she wrote with Nancy Kendall, who teaches education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If you complete a high-school degree,” the authors proposed, “you can obtain a 13th and 14th year of education for free in exchange for a modest amount of work while attending school.” They identified large pools of federal dollars allocated to higher education that could be tapped to pay for their plan. This money includes the $5 billion in Pell grants that ended up in the coffers of for-profit colleges during the 2015-16 academic year and another $5 billion that went to private colleges and universities, which Goldrick-Rab argues can use their endowments and other scholarship funds to offset lost federal dollars.