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Is Free College a Good Idea?

Is free college a good idea? Increasingly, evidence suggests yes

In only a few short years, the notion of free education has transitioned from a radical vision to mainstream Democratic thought. President Biden made free college one of his main campaign pillars and one that the first lady has been supporting for years.


In his recent speech to Congress, the president also hinted that he is ready for legislative action on a scaled-back version of the proposal as part of his American Families Plan.

Nonresident Senior Fellow – Governance Studies, Brown Center for Education Policy
Two weeks ago, the organization College Promise (CP)—led by Martha Kanter, who served as President Obama’s undersecretary for education—also issued a plan that would affect the free college discussion. (Full disclosure: I formerly advised the Biden campaign and now advise CP, but have gotten no remuneration for either activity.)


In today’s heated world, the free college notion stands out for its bipartisan support. A majority of self-identified Republicans have backed the proposition of free college in various surveys. In fact, one of the first such statewide initiatives was put in place by Bill Haslam, the former Republican governor of Tennessee.


While this may go the way of Obamacare, which met significant GOP legislative resistance despite the law’s roots with Republican Mitt Romney, free college appears different. Biden’s current idea only applies to community colleges, which emphasize professional and vocational education of the type Republicans embrace, as opposed to universities, which many Republicans consider as hostile battlegrounds in a cultural war.

But I am less interested in politics than the proof of efficacy. I have researched college access for many years and performed two randomized control trials of financial assistance, which yielded some of the first causal findings on free college in Milwaukee. Two years ago, Brookings published the first part of the Milwaukee work, which I carried out with a team of researchers. Since then, we have gathered additional data and learned more about how students reacted over time. Below, I outline our just-released analysis (co-authored with Jonathan Mills), compare our outcomes to comparable financial assistance systems, and then analyze implications for the Biden and CP ideas. Consequently, I conclude that the evidence increasingly supports free college and “open access aid” more broadly.


What Did We Learn in Milwaukee?

I launched The Degree Project (TDP) in 2009 as a demonstration initiative in conjunction with the organization Ascendium (formerly known as the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates) and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) (MPS). TDP gave all first-time 9th pupils in half of MPS high schools $12,000 for college as “last-dollar” funding. Students may utilize the cash for college if they graduated from high school on time with a GPA of 2.5 and a class attendance percentage of 90%.


Also, as is the norm with free college programs, students had to fill out the FAFSA and have at least one dollar of unmet needs. The aid could be used to attend any of the 66 public, in-state, two- or four-year colleges in Wisconsin. Ascendium provided up to $31 million to fund the grant and, as the main program administrator, sent regular letters to remind students about the program and its requirements. The organization also worked with school counselors to support students in becoming eligible for the funds and preparing for college.

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As free college programs move forward, experts agree that design matters \sTDP was announced to students in the fall of 2011. Using anonymized data, we then tracked students’ high school, college, and life outcomes for eight years, and we recently received data extending through when students were roughly 22 years old. As a rare randomized experiment, we could evaluate the impact by comparing the control and treatment group results. Here is what we found:

Overall, our data imply that help is most successful when it is “open access”—that is, aid with early commitment and free college tuition, but no merit limitations.

What about the evidence outside Milwaukee?
Our study also evaluates additional evidence on financial assistance, including federal aid, state merit aid schemes, and the newer “promise scholarship” programs that imitate free education. Our research is not alone in demonstrating that financial help enhances student outcomes. In reality, the great majority of the most thorough research indicates favorable benefits on college enrollment and college graduation. Given the significant average advantages of education, we may anticipate follow-up research to find impacts on job wages, voting, and other outcomes.


What about the costs? Open access assistance is more costly to be sure. More students get help and the aid levels per student are bigger than conventional financial aid. Is it worth it? Our study reveals it is. We carried out updated cost-benefit evaluations of numerous initiatives, including TDP, but also other actively examined programs in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Knox County, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and one statewide program in Nebraska.


We also utilized estimates of the average impacts of help drawn from past literature reviews. All of these projects pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the impacts on college results, and the effects of college outcomes on future wages are far bigger than the cost to the government and society as a whole. Moreover, it seems that benefits per dollar of cost are at least as high with open-access help as with more limited programs. This indicates that open-access assistance gives larger overall advantages to the community as a whole.


Back to the Free College Proposals

What do these findings signify for President Biden’s and CP’s proposals? The table below presents a side-by-side comparison. The biggest difference is the amount of detail. This demonstrates that the CP plan was supposed to correspond with, and fill out the Biden campaign concept. Perhaps the only fundamental difference is that the CP plan (and the Milwaukee example) covers private universities. The Biden campaign papers omit private universities, but the American Families Proposal only states “free community college,” implying conformity with the CP plan. Both suggestions are definitely in the category of open-access help.


There are significant parallels between these rules and the Milwaukee program that my colleagues and I investigated. All three systems make two-year education free (or nearly so) for all students without income limitations and by the early commitment of funds. All three need the FAFSA and high school graduation. Importantly, unlike both the Biden and CP ideas, the Milwaukee program contained merit restrictions, which damaged its success. This is partially why our research is so important to the present discussion.


Some may ask why the president has pared down the idea to merely free community college. This reflects that the notion of free college—even the “scaled back” version—is such a striking shift from prior policy, particularly at the federal level. Free community college alone would still be perhaps the greatest reform in federal higher education policy in the previous half-century.


Caveats and Concluding Thoughts
We cannot develop policy from evidence alone, but it can and should play a vital role. Sometimes, policy proposals have so little proof of efficacy that it is impossible to establish any convincing argument for a large-scale, national program. In other circumstances, there is enough potential for pilot studies and competitive funding to show effectiveness. With free college, we appear to be far past that threshold. In addition to decades of findings on national financial assistance programs, we have an increasing number of research on state and municipal programs that all reveal good evidence—the “laboratory of democracy” at work. The concept of a massive, government free-college program consequently has more and more plausibility.


A decade ago, it was not at all evident that this is what the evidence would indicate. There was practically little data on free college programs when we began this investigation back in 2009.


Also, there were excellent grounds to assume that such a significant increase in assistance would suffer from “diminishing returns”—the assumption that the next dollar is less effective than the previous one. This might have made free college more expensive than the advantages could justify. Now, we know better.


I do still worry a little about other aspects and obstacles. For example, the above analyses can only capture the immediate effects of financial aid, yet a federal free college program is such a marked departure in policy that it could alter political and market forces operating on higher education in unpredictable ways, perhaps even lowering college spending and quality.


Also, if the idea continues to focus on community colleges, then this would transfer students out of four-year universities and into colleges that now have extremely poor completion rates. There are also alternative approaches to boost college affordability and availability that do not need free college (e.g., higher Pell Grants and income-based loan repayment), some of which target money more narrowly to the most disadvantaged students.


And there are many issues to be hammered out as the president’s friends in Congress strive to produce sufficient support without (a) abandoning key values, or (b) generating new challenges that might develop when grafting new federal programs onto vastly diverse state settings.


Still, it is not often that an idea comes up that solves a generally accepted issue and has both scholarly support and a reasonable degree of nonpartisan political backing. The stars look set to make some type of nationwide free college a reality. The more evidence we see, the more that would appear to be a step forward.


The Brown Center Chalkboard debuted in January 2013 as a weekly series of fresh analyses on policy, research, and practice important to U.S. education.


In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.



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