Politicians get a lot of mileage out of support for “free” college tuition; it plays really well with the millennial crowd and aspiring college students who are facing significant financial barriers to college entry, and if anyone is listening to proposals coming from the current presidential campaign, there are actually some pretty good ideas, primarily from Republicans, on plans to make higher education more affordable. The core of these proposals is the reduction and simplifying of the federal government’s role in it.
These proposals include plans ranging from allowing private investors to finance college costs in exchange for a share of future student income, to more transparency on linkage between colleges and the success of their graduates, to the deregulation of the accreditation of higher education institutions, to the replacement of the various college loan programs and tax credits with a new federal line of credit plan with repayment tied to a percentage of income.
These and other ideas should be considered seriously and they and education issues generally are not getting much play in these sandbox fights that pass for presidential debates, but I want to make another point: the major problem is not the control of the growth of tuition, because this is not the primary barrier to student access to higher education and success once they get there.
The primary barrier is student postsecondary readiness. Our PreK-12 public education system is simply doing a miserable job of producing college and meaningful career readiness. In fact, in Texas, over 50% of high school graduates must take remedial courses when applying for community college. And we have a new ambitious higher education completion plan for the state called “60X30”, which means 60% college graduates by the year 2030, but the elementary and secondary school readiness pipeline to move this percentage from its current 38% is simply not in place, and this deficiency applies generally across the nation. This lack of readiness is the barrier to success that should be our primary focus, not so-called “free” college.
Researchers from the Center for American Progress released in January a study examining the effects of a state’s commitment to standards-based reform (as measured by clear standards, assessments aligned to those standards, and whether a state sanctions low-performing schools) on low-income student test scores measuring reading and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams from 2003 to 2013. Not surprisingly, the results indicated that states ranked highest in commitment to standards-based reform had stronger gains in NAEP scores, while low-income students in those states ranked lowest in this commitment did worse.
And yet, almost everywhere you look we are busy lowering standards and expectations in our public education accountability system! Go figure.