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The Bumpy Road to Free College

To make it happen, the federal government and the states might have to work together — like they did to build the interstate highways

OCTOBER 30, 2016

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

You might have heard — Hillary Clinton has a free-college plan.

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the Democratic presidential nominee’s proposal to cover in-state tuition at public colleges for families making up to $125,000: Is it too generous or not generous enough? What might it mean for private institutions? Is it DOA with Republicans in Congress?

Less remarked upon is the plan’s most radical feature, which also happens to be the bedrock on which the entire proposal rests. And that’s a new way that states and the federal government would have to work together.

The Clinton blueprint, one of several plans circulating to make tuition or all college costs “free” or “debt free,” breaks with more than four decades of financial-aid policy, in which assistance flows directly from the federal government to students and their families. Instead it would send federal dollars — $450 billion over 10 years — to the states to subsidize tuition for low- and middle-income students. States would have to kick in some of their own money to cover the costs and agree to hold down tuition increases.

“What makes for a great campaign slogan can be a governance nightmare.”

To the extent that the idea of a federal-state partnership has gotten attention, it’s largely been skeptical. The federal government has historically shown deference to state and institutional autonomy when it comes to higher education. Partisan gridlock in Washington has held up all but the most anodyne bills, and even if the proposal made it through Congress, statehouses are hardly friendly terrain. Republicans currently hold 31 of 50 governorships; in 30 states, they control both the governor’s office and the state legislature. Plus, Ms. Clinton has to get elected.

“What makes for a great campaign slogan,” says John R. Thelin, a historian of higher education at the University of Kentucky, “can be a governance nightmare.”

But advocates say the only way to really make college affordable is to ensure that states have, in the Clinton campaign’s own words, “skin in the game.” In the current system, supporters argue, there’s nothing to prevent states from cutting higher-education funding. They know that colleges can raise tuition. And they know that when they trim budgets, federal aid will make up the difference, at least in part. As a result, the price of college has steadily risen, while state support has tumbled.

That’s where the partnership between the federal government and the states comes in.

“It’s not the sexy part of the proposal,” says F. King Alexander, president of the Louisiana State University system, “but it’s the most important part.”

For higher education, a federal/state approach represents a profound shift. Any additional funds channeled through the states would almost certainly come with regulatory requirements, the type that colleges have long dodged. No one has spelled out just what those demands would look like — or how they might change the relationship between the federal government, state lawmakers, and individual institutions.

But there’s a precedent for using a partnership to tackle ambitious policy goals. Exactly 60 years ago, the federal government and the states came together to meet another great challenge: build more than 40,000 miles of interstate highways, crisscrossing the country. That collaboration — how it succeeded and where it failed — might offer a primer on the pitfalls and the promise of Ms. Clinton’s free-college plan.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 became law with little fanfare, one of a stack of measures signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he recovered from intestinal surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Its quiet birth belies its significance. For the nation’s first century and a half, the federal government stayed out of road building, leaving such work to the states or to private companies that charged for the roads’ use. Seven presidents, in fact, had vetoed transportation bills on the grounds that they were unconstitutional. Road construction, they said, wasn’t one of the powers the founders gave to Congress — much like higher education.

By the prosperous ’50s, though, Americans were taking to the road in larger and larger numbers. They demanded consumer goods that had to be trucked from deep-water ports to department-store shelves. And at the height of the Cold War, the possibility that the military might have to transport men and munitions to counter a Soviet threat to the homeland seemed very real. What if they had to rely on second-rate roads in the middle of an attack?

Strained state-highway departments had neither the capacity nor the cash to build the modern roadways needed. Even if they had, the result probably would have been a patchwork of routes cobbled together across state borders, not the nationwide system envisioned by the plan’s drafters, says Bruce E. Seely, a historian of technology who has written extensively about interstate highways.

At $25 billion, the Highway Act was then the country’s largest-ever public-works bill. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost, while the states would be responsible for building and maintaining the highways.

It was a collaborative approach. “No one was the junior partner,” says Mark H. Rose, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University, “and no one was senior.” Federal highway engineers offered technical advice, and the states retained discretion over project selection and construction decisions.

For the first years of interstate program, the partnership held. Then came the Freeway Revolt.

It seems obvious, but highways go through cities, and cities are home to people, tens of thousands of them. Where to place the new interstates became a point of contention between residents and highway planners, and between the federal government and the states.

Routes threatened to decimate neighborhoods. In New Orleans, residents protested an artery that would have skirted the historic French Quarter, writes the journalist Earl Swift in The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway. Another proposal would have put 14 lanes of flyovers and ramps right over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, today the centerpiece of the city’s downtown.

The Inner Harbor mixing bowl was never built. The New Orleans project, dubbed “An Expressway Named Destruction,” was shelved by federal officials. In 1968, Congress passed a law expanding public hearings for urban highways, to the consternation of those in the states who worried that such requirements would slow construction. State highway officials “resented their federal partners’ striving to play daddy,” Mr. Swift writes, but the federal highway administrator didn’t back down: “It was his way or no highway.”

With the Freeway Revolt, the state-federal relationship soured, says Mr. Seely, who is dean of the College of Sciences and Arts at Michigan Technological University. States no longer saw their federal collaborators as neutral technocrats but as possible political adversaries. “It damaged the idea,” he says, “that this was a shared effort.”

The analogy between highways and higher education is, like any, imperfect. Funding structures differ. While the states initially welcomed federal advice on road construction, the allergy to federal oversight is deeply ingrained in higher education. Yet consider: Both simultaneously promise a private benefit — to individual motorists, to single students — and a public good. Both are economic drivers. And each is a moon shot of a goal — difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by going it alone.

In the summary of the free-college plan posted on the Clinton campaign’s website, there’s little detail about how a federal-state partnership for higher education would work. “Everyone will do their part,” it says, and that’s about it.

But the experience of the interstate highway system suggests that the terms of the relationship matter. In that case, the notion that Uncle Sam knew best chipped away at the collegiality that had existed between state and federal highway officials.

Corralling 50 states to tackle a common goal is, if anything, more difficult today than decades ago, says Donald F. Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland at College Park. “The states are restless,” he says, wary of what they see as dictates from Washington.

In elementary and secondary education, for example, No Child Left Behind, which increased the federal role in holding schools accountable for student outcomes, was approved just 15 years ago by a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. Today it has been all but abandoned, having collapsed under the weight of what many have come to see as overly prescriptive standards set by the Department of Education.

Even before Mrs. Clinton’s free-college proposal, with its language hinting at accountability, there were signs that the federal government was seeking to play a greater part in overseeing higher education. President George W. Bush had the Spellings Commission, which advocated for a tougher set of metrics to measure educational outcomes. His successor, President Obama, made an attempt to set up a college-ratings plan. Both attempts, though, were diluted in the face of concerted opposition from colleges.

Could $450 billion be the sweetener that induces states and colleges to accept a more activist role for the federal government in higher education?

“It seems clear if there’s more money, there will be more strings attached.”

“I don’t think a desire for accountability is what’s driving this proposal,” says Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “But it seems clear if there’s more money, there will be more strings attached.”

When it came to highways, state officials initially welcomed the assistance of federal engineers because they had expertise in constructing modern expressways that could accommodate high-speed traffic.

In higher education, the federal government has typically left states and colleges to their own devices — and they have shown little appetite for changing that balance.

Before a single word of legislation has been written, some are sounding the alarm that, for all the talk of partnership, the free-college proposal could amount to a federal takeover of higher education. “It’s like a dagger,” says George Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, “aimed right at public colleges’ autonomy.”

As a libertarian, Mr. Leef believes that paying for college is the responsibility of individual students and families. But other critics argue that by offering a policy prescription at the national level, a plan like Mrs. Clinton’s could pre-empt individual states’ ability to pursue their own strategies. Tennessee, for example, in an effort being watched closely by policy makers in other states, has made two years of community college free for all residents.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, some 37 states have put in place or are developing performance indicators for their institutions,tying funding to metrics like time to degree or the share of low-income or minority students enrolled. One big unknown if the Clinton plan were to move forward is how much autonomy states would have to chart their own paths to reach shared national goals.

The promise of federal funds could distort states’ budgetary decisions, causing them to give preference to certain programs or efforts because they match federal priorities. That happened with highways. Some of them followed routes that states might not have preferred; others were built even though states didn’t see the need.

Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education at Stanford University, puts it this way: “Whose higher education will it be?”

If more investment comes with greater ownership, the real question for campuses, then, is where the federal government might throw its weight around.

If the Clinton plan becomes reality, it seems likely that colleges will be asked to report things like long-term employment prospects. They could have to comply with cost controls or meet targets for enrolling low-income students to qualify for funding. Mr. Kettl, the Maryland professor, says he wouldn’t be surprised to see language requiring universities to spend more of their endowments, which could appeal to congressional Republicans who have scrutinized the spending practices of wealthy institutions.

Other clues might come from Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic-primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who proposed a free-college plan of his own. Mrs. Clinton’s recent full-throated support for free college has been seen as an effort to woo Mr. Sanders’s millennial fans. She could adopt some of his ideas, like prohibiting the use of federal funds for merit aid and building construction or requiring that three-quarters of a college’s faculty members teach full time on the tenure track.

“Regulation” can sometimes seem like an epithet, but many who study state and federal relations say such directives aren’t bad in and of themselves.

When the federal government first provided state subsidies for road building, in 1916, any state that wanted to receive the money had to create a specific agency to oversee highways, says Timothy J. Conlan, a professor of government at George Mason University. The provision was intended to raise standards and professionalize state efforts, as well as to ensure that federal dollars weren’t diverted to governors’ political cronies.

Over time, as the number of interstate-highway miles ticked up, so too did the regulatory requirements. Some were “quite sensible,” says Jonathan L. Gifford, Mr. Conlan’s colleague at George Mason and a specialist in transportation policy. Within a national system, consistent signage and pavement markings seem reasonable. Other guidelines, like those mandating the thickness of guard rails or setting speed advisories on curves, came with safety in mind.

But the rules can add up. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a lobbying group, there are now more than 70 environmental statutes or amendments alone that affect transportation. Enough is enough, says Chris Edwards, director of tax-policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

“The point to me is that the longer the feds are involved in a policy area, the more statutes and regs build up, like barnacles on a boat. And the feds never seem to get around to scrubbing the old barnacles off,” Mr. Edwards says. “I hope that doesn’t happen with higher ed.”

You don’t have to be a small-government conservative like Mr. Edwards to believe that the federal government has, on occasion, used funding more as a cudgel than a carrot to press for the policies it wants. In 1974, for instance, in the wake of gas shortages caused by an oil embargo, Congress enacted temporary legislation setting a 55-mile-per-hour national speed limit. But although the measure was meant to conserve fuel, it remained in place for more than 20 years, long after the price of oil had dropped.

Washington also used the threat of withholding highway-construction money to get states to raise the legal drinking age to 21. Several states dragged their feet on complying; one, South Dakota, challenged the constitutionality of the law all the way to the Supreme Court. But the price of losing a portion of federal support for highways was too great, and all of the states eventually changed their laws.

The drinking-age bill was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who is better known for fighting what he saw as federal incursions on state authority. He made an exception, however, in the case of teenage drinking. “With the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand,” he said during the signing ceremony, “we have no misgiving about this judicious use of federal power.”

Could free college also be a foot in the door to seemingly unrelated dictates on colleges and states? Perhaps the federal government could decide to set salary caps for faculty members or decree that professors should be holding office hours on Friday mornings rather than talking with reporters, says Mr. Rose, of Florida Atlantic. “Suddenly you’d find us talking about states’ rights in the faculty meeting.”

Of course, states don’t have to opt in to federal-aid programs like free college.

Indeed, in its ruling on the drinking-age law, the Supreme Court said the federal government could tie requirements, within limits, to highway funds because states’ participation in the program was voluntary.

In that case, the federal government paid 90 cents on the dollar. It seems unlikely that any free college measure would be so generous.

Even if it were, there’s precedent for states to walk away from programs despite the federal government’s picking up most of the tab. Nineteen states opted to leave money, lots of it, on the table rather than expand health-care coverage to low-income people through the Medicaid program under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Obamacare, as the law is known, polarized the public. Free college, by contrast, enjoys high levels of popularity. Recent polling has found broad, bipartisan backing for idea that the cost of college is too high and that students should be able to earn a degree without taking on debt. The Clinton campaign has said that about 80 percent of American families would qualify under its plan.

But high poll numbers don’t necessarily amount to a referendum for government intervention. Seeing something as a common problem is not the same thing as agreeing that it’s a national priority.

After all, the voters who voice their support for the idea of free college include many of the same citizens who have stood by for the past three decades as states have decreased spending on public higher education.

As state budgets have tightened, appropriations for higher education have been squeezed between expenses that are mandatory, like Medicaid, and those that are popular, like elementary and secondary schools.

With states’ share of college costs declining, the amount that students and families pay has increased. In about half of states, families now foot most of the bill. According to some projections, within a decade, public funding for higher education could all but dry up in several states.

To some, that’s a convincing argument for why states shouldn’t be part of a free-college plan. It doesn’t make sense, says Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, “to give money to the people who have been walking away from higher education.”

But to Mr. Alexander, of Louisiana State, that’s exactly why only a federal-state partnership can make college affordable.

No state has cut higher education as deeply as Louisiana, which has reduced appropriations by more than 40 percent since the beginning of the recession. Mr. Alexander, who is also chancellor of the flagship Baton Rouge campus, has done all the things college leaders typically do in budgetary fights: He has buttonholed legislators, testified before committees, and written op-eds. He has made the case for higher education’s value to the state and sounded the alarm about the costs of shortchanging public institutions.

Yet the cuts keep coming. As a result, tuition has almost doubled. It is clear, he says, that “we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”

When Ann M. O’Leary, a senior policy adviser to Mrs. Clinton, called a year ago to sound him out about the candidate’s platform, he was especially enthusiastic about one idea the campaign was considering: a new federal-state partnership for higher education.

Unlike some campus officials, Mr. Alexander doesn’t reflexively paint federal regulation as an encroachment on institutional autonomy. Increased attentiveness could be good, he says, if it puts students first and is crafted with colleges’ input.

He isn’t alone in calling for a rethinking of federal and state roles. Higher-education groups like the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and think tanks like New America have also proposed plans to use federal dollars to encourage states to maintain certain funding levels. The idea had a test run of sorts during the recession, when states pledged to hold higher-education spending steady in exchange for temporary federal-stimulus funds. All but two states complied.

Adopted long-term, the approach would represent a significant transformation — like the federal-state partnership to build the interstate highway system.

True, that partnership has frayed over time. Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax, which pays for road construction, in more than two decades. Cash-strapped states have backed off maintenance. One in four of the nation’s bridges is structurally deficient.

Still, no one could deny that the relationship has shaped America. Today more than 46,000 miles of interstate highway — bored through mountains, cutting across forests and plains, bisecting small towns and suburbs and, sometimes, cities — link the country. It is a national system, one that would not exist without the states and the federal government working together.

States alone weren’t up to the challenge of creating a national highway system. And if the decline in public support over the past generation is any indication, they may not have the will to pay for public higher education.

However, just as our politics and Constitution made federally built highways impossible, we’re not about to have federal colleges. “Free college” may sound like a fantasy, but miles and miles of asphalt connecting every American city must have seemed pretty unlikely one hundred years ago.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

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