The idea of free public college to qualified students sounds amazing! No student loans, no debt to pay back, students could be financially free and clear. Students would benefit greatly from this initiative, right? Not as much as you might expect.
Community College Offers Tuition-Free Pathways
Many community colleges have created tuition-free pathways for lower-income students. Along with these changes, the already low tuition for students attending community college is typically covered by the application of federal and state financial aid.
There is a good possibility that low-income students will go to college free. No additional legislation is necessary – it is happening right now.
Free College Increases Inequality
Free college will widen the gap in socioeconomic inequality rather than closing it. Students that would benefit from free public college are more likely to come from a higher socioeconomic status, have high SAT scores and come from high performing high schools.
A good outcome for these students? Probably – but it we have to ask whether this is the demographic MOST in need of assistance. By many estimates, 40-60% of all high school graduates need some form of education in reading, writing, or math. Getting into a highly selective public university is not likely for a majority of students. Are we increasing inequality by advocating for free public college?
Let’s Focus on Fixing Our K-12 System
If the government wants to provide better access to higher education, then let’s fix our public K-12 system. On average, only 76% of Black students and 79% of Hispanic students graduated high school on time, compared to 88% of white students and 91% of Asian/Pacific Islander students (Cosman, 2014).
These demographic proportions are at crisis levels in urban districts and in cities where public school populations are largest and poorest. With rising numbers of high school graduates who are not ‘college ready’- the free college message gets diluted. For free college to work, students need to be ready to take on the educational challenge of a rigorous college education.
Students need to be ready for the social and economic factors that many college students face today. If we cannot fix the only system of free education we already have in this country, what makes us think we can take on another one?
Increase the Pell Grant
If the federal government wants to take on the responsibility of decreasing student loan debt and encourage access to higher education, then it should expand the Pell Grant.
The Pell Grant is a US government subsidy (administered by the Department of Education) established in 1965 that provides financial assistance for those who need it to attend college.
• Increase the amounts allowed for all students.
• Expand the eligibility requirements to allow more middle-class students to have access to free financial aid.
• Let more students use that money to attend the college of their choice or attend the college that fits their educational, social and economic needs. There is not just one type of college for one type of student.
Hope starts here.
References: Cosman, B. (2014, April 28). The High School Graduation Rate is Great, Unless You are Poor.