Since President Obama was at KU a few months ago, we've had a lot of time to think about the proposal for free community college, and whether or not it would improve higher education as a path to economic mobility, particularly for the most disadvantaged students who, today, cluster in two-year institutions and who would, of course, be more sensitive to changes in price.
And, while certainly taking cost out of the higher education equation has some appeal, our conclusion at the time is the same as today and, notably, the same as some other voices in the higher education arena:
Not only would making community college free not solve the problems poor students face in trying to use higher education as a platform for upward mobility (it wouldn't, for example, address their need for living expenses while in school, or get them the advanced degrees that correlate most closely with economic opportunities), but it could actually make educational inequities worse, by funneling low-income children to schools with poorer completion outcomes, just because of their affordability. This dynamic and its corollary--with economically-advantaged students able to select institutions and degree paths based on criteria other than cost--could exacerbate the 'two-tiered' divide in higher education...all while presenting a facade of having addressed the issues of college access, affordability, and attainment.
We can still applaud a conversation that acknowledges the need for bold--even radical--changes to higher education financing. We appreciate the shift in the conversation away from tinkering with repayment conditions to challenging the premise that education should equal debt, in the first place. And, at the same time, we believe that this particular policy change isn't the cure for what needs to be fixed, in higher education generally and financial aid, specifically. Instead, we should focus on helping children cultivate college-saving identities, building asset foundations that prepare them financially and academically to achieve, commensurate with all their peers, not just those from the same family income quintile.
A universal, progressive, lifelong Children's Savings Account policy isn't only more likely to succeed in restoring education as an arbiter of equity and catalyst of mobility, however; it's also likely less expensive than making college free for all students, and far more aligned with prevailing U.S. policy preferences.
For every student, seeking every degree, at every type of postsecondary institution, it's time to #save4ed.