As reported last week by Ashley A. Smith in Inside Higher Education, one of the most interesting developments in higher education is how the growing concern over high tuition sticker prices is playing out in state and national politics.
Much of the discussion is a good-hearted effort to make college more affordable, especially for middle class students and their families. These efforts are noble and the cause is just.
Free College Tuition: A New Entitlement for the Middle Class?
There is also some hint, especially at the state level, that programs that address high tuition sticker prices do well in polling, especially for candidates with broader national political ambition. These programs leverage the ability to redeploy state budgets, or seek new revenue, to craft a new middle class entitlement.
While the approach may vary, these programs seek tuition relief. Referred to generally as “college promise” programs, they are tuition-free initiatives for community colleges, and in some places, four-year public colleges. They have been rising in popularity across the United States.
The college promise programs raise an important question in American society: Should a college education that is increasingly an entry–level expectation for millions seeking full-time employment be a right or an expectation?
It’s against this backdrop that the non-partisan College Promise Campaign launched by President Obama and the Educational Testing Service recently released reports exploring what they thought were five promising models.
Model 1: Children’s Savings Accounts Plus College Promise
The first approach supports payment by combining children’s savings accounts with a college promise model. The goal is to offer an option to increasing debt, expanding college access to families who are loan adverse or beset by rising debt before they graduate. In this model, the City of Oakland has already raised $25 million of their $35 million goal to support multi-year scholarships to supplement the children’s savings accounts.
Model 2: Publicly Funded “Free Tuition”
The second model may be the best known among the group, pioneered already in states like Tennessee and New York. The financial backing comes from strategies like tax credits, tax increment financing, outside philanthropy, and lottery revenues. Its impact, especially in New York, which has the largest number of private colleges in the nation, can be dramatic and deleterious to private colleges, particularly in states where the public-private mix is more balanced in favor of them.
Model 3: Mix of Public-Private Philanthropy, Partnerships
A third model uses philanthropy and public-private partnerships to raise support for college promise programs. It can be stand-alone, using individual donors or corporate support, or can be backed by a public-private mix, like the Michigan Promise Zones. In this case, Michigan uses an increase in the state’s education tax to mix with private donations.
Model #4: Outcomes- and Future Income-based
The fourth approach calls for the use of outcomes-based models in which the student might receive a $10,000 scholarship but must pay it back through a deduction in future earnings. If a student earns less under this income-sharing agreement, then the student may end up paying less than the $10,000. Purdue University’s “Back a Boiler” program is a good example.
Model #5: Federal Support for Two Years of Community College
The final model examines the role of the federal government, especially after President Obama’s proposal that would have made two years of community college free nationally with states partnering on the tuition bill. The authors of this report think that the federal approach should not pick winners and losers but should help states stabilize state support for colleges and students by incentivizing them.
Higher Education as a Public Good with State-Specific Solutions
There’s much to commend here. There is a predisposition in the report findings to argue that the federal government should not manage a centralized program that would increase bureaucracy at the federal level. There is a recognition that the best solution might be different in each state, depending upon the mix of colleges and universities, level of tuition paid, and the workforce needs in the region. And perhaps most significantly, there is an appreciation for higher education as a public good.
The report findings suggest that education is a right and not a privilege. It’s a fundamental debate that must be settled in an era in which the expansion of entitlement programs is unlikely.
Support for Higher Education is a Shared Responsibility
Yet at the same time, its authors agree that support for higher education must be a shared responsibility among many players. This better suits the national fiscal climate. What is less clear is that one of the partners within shared responsibility must be the student and their families. For this to work, all participants must have skin in the game to the extent to which they are able.
There is a political truce that will also need to be worked out among the various higher education sectors.
This begins with an appreciation of the contributions that each group, including private higher education, by educating the public and serving as a critical economic engine in many states. It will also mean that the role of each sector, including the value proposition for community colleges for instance, must be understood to better justify state support for access and choice.
Without defining the purpose and outcomes across the state and federal government programs that support higher education, it is unlikely that a coherent and seamless higher education pathway can develop. But the models described show great promise.
And that’s a good news story.