Would Making College Free Boost Completion Rates?

Nothing in life is truly free—but don’t tell that to dogmatic liberals and their pandering politicians, who would turn the first two years of college into a new universal entitlement. This idea has the same fatal flaws as universal preschool: a needless windfall for affluent voters and state institutions that does very little to help the needy.

Start with the expense. Today, millions of families save their own pennies and dollars to pay for kids’ college. While they would surely love to slough this burden onto taxpayers, doing so would probably shift billions of dollars every year from programs that help talented poor kids access higher education and improve our schools. In a time of scarce resources, why is this a priority?

Nor would it help disadvantaged students. Most “free college” proposals focus on community colleges, turning them into “grades thirteen and fourteen” of a new public education system. Yet these schools have the worst track record with poor kids, especially those with exceptional academic promise. (They’re also already “free” to poor students today, thanks to federal Pell grants.) We know from a ton of research that these students do best at more challenging state schools and private colleges.

Yes, it might entice more students to enroll in the first place, as advocates claim. But is that a good thing? We know from multiple sources—including the National Assessment of Educational Progress—that just 40 percent of twelfth graders are college-ready, even though nearly 70 percent already head straight into college. This is why more than half of those entering many colleges start in remedial courses—high-school-level classes from which most will never escape. That’s no good way to enter adulthood.

Far better to prepare more disadvantaged students to succeed in college by investing in K–12 reform (and targeted pre-K) while adopting the kinds of reforms set forth this week by Jeb Bush, such as extending students a line of credit while giving colleges’ “skin in the game” via well-crafted income-based repayment plans. I would add one more suggestion: Colleges seeking more public subsidy must stop admitting students who are clearly unprepared academically and therefore have virtually no shot at leaving with a real degree or credentials.

Policy makers are right to address college affordability, but let’s make sure their “solutions” don’t worsen today’s acute college completion crisis.

– Michael J. Petrilli

This post originally appeared in the New York Times‘s Room for Debate blog.

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