Two new free college plans and the future of higher education

Last week Bernie Sanders and allies introduced legislation to provide tuition-free public higher education for students in families making less than $125,000 per year.  At the same time New York’s governor announced the Excelsior Scholarship, setting up a similar plan for that state’s college students.  Other states have been exploring related plans.  What’s going on?

Let’s dig into the federal proposal and New York plan, then think about implications.

Both have strong ethical and moral components.  One of the federal law’s sponsors, Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), describes the proposal in such terms:

Profiting from student loans is usury, and we just can’t continue to allow it…

You see, there’s nothing normal about graduating with massive student debt, where you live in fear of predatory debt collectors and wage garnishers even as you are starting to live your life.

There’s nothing normal about not being able to have a family or buy a house because you have spent years trying to pay off your loan and you just can’t take care of anything else.

Or from the Bernie Sanders site:

It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades.

Both plans are focused on publicly funding tuition for public colleges and universities, including 2- and 4-year programs.  Private schools aren’t on the table, although apparently Cuomo tried and failed to regulate them in his bill.  Graduate programs aren’t considered.

Cuomo Sanders_Politico

Two politicians not usually this close together.

Since both support tuition, they leave open the problem of paying for fees (which can easily escalate, and have often done so) and especially living expenses.  As Sara Goldrick-Rab pointed out, the latter provide a serious obstacle to students, due to a mix of income stagnation and rising costs, plus adult learners’ extra costs.

The NY law offers an interesting exception, in that it allocates $8 million to pay for open education resources (OER).  That’s especially daring politically at a local level, given how many publishers (and lawyers) are based in New York.

Neither plan regulates higher education spending or quality.  One commentator observes,

these plans would do nothing to crack the whip on the schools to improve their quality, or reduce the time to graduate, which has stretched from 4 years to 6.2 years for an undergraduate degree over the past couple of decades.

This is true, and a popular view, but misunderstands higher education. One reason for people taking longer to graduate is that they can’t afford to pay for school, so they take time off to work.  A student enjoying full tuition at a public institution may still be unable to pay fees and other costs, or could face living issues (economic and otherwise) that knock them off the expected schedule.

Current student debt is largely unaffected, although the federal proposal could allow renegotiation of interest rates.  Predatory lending, difficulty in discharging, etc. aren’t in these laws.

The New York law in particular has a series of problems.  First, funding it may be constrained depending on economic fluctuations, as dean Reed points out.  Second, as that state’s population ages, spending on higher ed will face even steeper competition from medical and pension funding.  Third, as Anya Kamenetz reports, wealthier families (up to the cap ($125 for federal; $100-125K for NY over time) will do better than poor ones, since the latter have to work through other scholarship and support first, like Pell.  Note that the main page refers to a specific economic levels:”We’ve made college tuition-free for middle class New Yorkers.”  That’s not aimed (rhetorically) at the working class or poor people.  (In contrast, Bernie Sanders’ page speaks to “workforce”)

Clinton and Cuomo_IHE

The $125K cap clearly recalls the Clinton campaign’s 2016 proposal.

Fourth, the schedule constraint (must finish on time) is going to be a problem, as noted above.  Again, I turn to Anya:

The Excelsior is good for two years for a two-year program like an associate’s degree, or four years for a four-year program. That sounds reasonable, except when you realize that, according to the most recent numbers, just 34 percent of freshmen at public universities nationwide graduated within four years.

Fifth, the NY plan requires students to stay in state as many years as Excelsior  supported them in school.  Back to Sara Goldrick-Rab again:

Dr. Goldrick-Rab, (recent Future Trends Forum guest) called the provision that students must live and work in New York a “poison pill” by limiting mobility, among other factors.

“I was fully supportive of this bill until I saw the final language,” she said.

“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Based on these plans and observations, what can we deduce about the future of education?

Policy discussions are still focused on traditional-age undergraduates, rather than on the growing and soon to be normative population of adult learners.  We need to shift to account for both, given demographics.  Call it student population bifocalism.

From the NY program’s main page: “Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”  This is another datapoint for the tendency to see post-secondary education as mandatory, or at least widespread.  Today’s BA is yesterday’s high school diploma… until we reach peak higher education.

These plans also play a part in the Democratic party’s center versus left struggle.  As I and other noted, the Democratic catastrophe of November 2016 has sparked an internal battle between those two leading political schools.  As Naked Capitalism observes, “This near-universal program providing concrete material benefits, especially to the working class, would “never, ever” have happened without the Sanders campaign.”  Democratic centrists must be carefully weighing their options now.  Is such left-wing policymaking where the party is headed?  Is not going after current debt a sign of deference to the very politically powerful financial sector?  If so, they may succeed in cashing out fully from the current generations of debt holders.

There’s also a strong public versus private divide in this free tuition movement.  Will private colleges and universities lose significant enrollment to their even less expensive competitors?  Or will they survive as more of the wealthy send family members there, leading to a deeper class divide between students and also institutions?  What will private institutions do to compete: emphasize the possibility of longer degree times; accentuate class; celebrate religious identify; embrace a social justice politics; market themselves more internationally?

A different divide may open up across American states.  New York is a famously liberal or blue state, as is Vermont, Bernie Sanders’ home, and Washington, Pramila Jayapal’s.  Will Democratic states move for similar plans, while Republicans resist them?  Or will some other divide occur, without a unifying federal plan?

The Cuomo plan supporting OER could indicate broader public support for open.  Once again, I’m impressed that the law got through New York, where publishers are usually based.  Excelsior could be a pointer towards a majority-OER future for educational materials.

Ultimately, we can view these plans as pointers towards free higher education in the United States.  Colleges and universities may go through a process like the one high school underwent in the past, becoming open and free to all, while in parallel a private school system grows and competes.

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2 Responses to Two new free college plans and the future of higher education

  1. Kelly Walsh says:

    The NY State “free tuition” plan is largely political positioning, at the expense of what is sure to be a good deal of confusion and new debt for students. As you and others have noted, is it only about tuition, no fees, etc., and only picks up what for many will be a small slice (and for many, will be $0 since Pell and TAP will already cover tuition at SUNYs for a lot students). And with graduation rates and time to completion being what they are, these so called “grants” will revert to loans for more than half of these students, since you have to PAY IT BACK if you don’t complete on time! Highly misleading, and as you also noted, this does NOTHING to address quality or spending – it’s just another handout to public institutions that have far less incentive to ensure student success and efficient operation than the private and proprietary sector do, all so Cuomo can use it as fodder for his 2020 presidential run. *Disclaimer – I am an employee of a for-profit college with a proud history serving a population in needs, with impressive outcomes!

  2. Pingback: Having hope about the world and education in 2018 | Bryan Alexander

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