Free College?

No TV. No internet. No phone.


It is kind of primitive. Except that I am using my phone to play stored music (for just such an occasion, the same reason I keep my feathers numbered) and I am writing this on Windows 8 tablet while drinking a tumbler of pinot grigio. Maybe it is not too primitive. My wife and are acknowledging/celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in a CCC cabin at Douthat State Park in western Virginia. This small, one-room cabin is nearly identical to the one we stayed in five years ago at this time at Fairystone State Park. It is simple, relaxing, and as about as romantic as one might like.

So of course I am thinking about higher education. (To be fair, wife is curled up trying to cope with her constant pain in her knees.)

While some folks might consider this cabin to be somethingless than Spartan, it is probably more comfortable and better appointed thanmost traditional dorm rooms. Especially our son’s. It is certainly cleaner.

And this is why I am thinking about higher education.

The Tennessee legislature has approved free community college.

Except it hasn’t. Not really. Not even close.

Bryce McKibbentweeted about this.

This last tweet is most damning. Leaving the poorest students with 67% of the cost of attendance unaddressed is not free community college, it is just a gimmick. Not covering part-time students is perhaps understandable, but undercuts the message.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is out with a proposal for a free two-year college option. It recognizes that the cost of attendance includes living. It is simply not enough to cover the tuition and mandatory college fees and call that free college and leave out the cost of textbooks, supplies, food, and a place to live. Certainly policymakers don’t want to pay for something that is perhaps already being covered by someone else, but we can’t seriously demand that all students work hard academically and simultaneously work to support themselves. I credit their proposal with recognizing that reality. Unfortunately, as part of the funding mechanism it calls for the elimination of public support of students attending private colleges.

That goes too far, in my opinion. I respect her intent, but I disagree.

The brilliance of American higher education is its mix of colleges and universities.

I sometimes wonder if folks that should know better think that visionary public leaders looked around the states and said, “Look, there are no colleges, no universities, we must build them,” in much the same way that the Europeans saw America as an uninhabited wilderness. “Look, there are no people here, no civilizations, we must conquer the wilderness and people a civilization.”

Private colleges were often the first to make room for women, for non-whites. Public colleges have fought to deny access to women, and one became private to win that fight.

The private colleges I have attended and worked for have had their strengths and weaknesses. So too have the public colleges I have attended. If the criticism of private colleges is their costs, well, must I point out that is easier to cost less when one receives a subsidy from the taxpayers. At the end of the day, after adjusting for size and program mix, the cost of education between a public and private college education are very similar.

We are beginning to reach a point where the only discernible differences between a public institution and a private institution in Virginia will be two questions:

  1. Who appoints the board?
  2. Who owns the land?

The passage of TJ21 in 2011 sets the goal of making the Tuition Assistance Grant approximately equal to the state subsidy for in-state undergraduates. We have a ways to go to get there, a matter of $3000 or so per student, but there is a pathway in the law. Virginia law-makers recognize there is value in having a vibrant public and private sectors of higher education. If that goal is ever achieved, we will like face a new discussion about the differences between the two sectors. This is doubly true if the private sector ever achieves its goal of having some kind of state support for capital projects.

At that point, we may be looking at inadequate state support for both public and nonprofit higher education.

This is where I agree with Sara in principle – we should be fully funding public higher education. I suspect we might differ on what that means, but at least it is a place to start a conversation.

It is fully appropriate to question how we fund students in higher education. I think we should always continue to debate that…after we we come to conclusion as to why we are supporting higher education. Let’s have clear goals and agree on them, relative the value of everything else we are doing.

For the record, I think everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from education beyond high school. I just think there are many ways to do that and most of those are worthy of some level of support.

One thought on “Free College?

  1. Pingback: Why “Free Community College” is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing | TICAS News & Views Blog

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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