Jeff Selingo’s Mistaken Critique of Free College

I like Jeff. He is smart. He knows higher ed. But something went really, really wrong when he sat down to attack Free College.

First, a bit about Free College. It’s a way of rethinking the current financial aid system which is broken in about 100 ways, as I explain in my forthcoming book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. It transforms a poorly targeted, underfunded, confusing system that does little to control college costs into one that better serves the nation’s need for a college-educated workforce in an efficient and sustainable manner. It does this by lowering the price to students, simplifying the message about price (“free”) and applying it to everyone (universality), instilling accountability for spending by states and institutions, focusing resources where they are most needed (e.g. for instructional spending and student supports), and emphasizing the importance of public higher education (where even in today’s voucher-driven system the vast majority of American’s outside the top 1% attend college).

A fully formed Free College model does not yet exist. Communities and states across the nation are pushing towards it with incremental plans, none of which is entirely satisfactory but all of which contribute to a larger movement. There are two federal proposals on the table, America’s College Promise (initiated by President Obama and then introduced as legislation) and Bernie Sanders’s plan. Neither is perfect, and in all cases the authors know it — these are plans for discussion and debate intended to drive change in this direction not blueprints. I know of no one working on Free College who thinks these plans will be implemented in the near future — that is neither an expectation or a goal — after all, it took 80 years to make public high school free! The point is to make progress.

So here comes Jeff Selingo, criticizing some sort of vague undefined notion of Free College that he does not explicate. Whatever it is, he doesn’t like it. Which would be fine, if he didn’t make so many errors in describing it.

Mistake #1: Jeff confused merit aid programs with Free College. He says free college helps students who would get a degree anyway. His evidence? Merit aid programs in Florida and Georgia with sizable high school GPA requirements (B average and higher) that don’t exist in Sanders’ plan. Check out Tennessee’s Promise, where a whole heap of students are now attending college who otherwise wouldn’t have. Free College plans hardly ever involve high GPA requirements if they can afford to do otherwise, and none of the federal proposals use a B cutoff.

There are lessons to learn from merit-aid programs but they are about the power of universality and messaging — keeping it simple — and there, the Georgia HOPE Program clearly worked.

Mistake #2: Jeff fell into the usual trope of suggesting that free college is only worthwhile if money fixes all problems. Puhleese. No one ever claimed that. But the impact of money is systematically understated in research in higher education because of inadequate data and mis-measurement, as I’ve explained in this blog and in my forthcoming book.

Mistake #3: Jeff oversimplifies the college readiness challenge. The question of why some students don’t succeed in higher education isn’t about an absolute standard of academic readiness but about ability to succeed academically under constraints. A lack of time to study because one is working to pay the bills makes it especially hard to succeed in college. Conditioning access to affordable college on college readiness is a great way to increase inequality, by the way. The problem we have now is that when students don’t succeed, they leave with debt they can’t afford. Free college addresses this.

Mistake #4: Jeff misses the key difference between the Sanders’ (and America’s College Promise) first-dollar scholarship version of Free College and the incremental approaches states are taking because until the federal government plays ball they cannot afford to do the first dollar approach. First-dollar wipes tuition and fees away leaving existing aid to address living costs. Moreover, there is an inherent quid pro quo in all of these plans that constrain college spending — they do not get the federal subsidy unless they focus on instructional spending. Costs will fall. Moreover, costs will fall because the system will become more efficient as students complete degrees faster! (See my team’s randomized experiment showing that reducing the price reduces time-to-degree completion!)

Sadly, Jeff’s final statement has no basis in fact. It is simply untrue that “ the experience of a dozen states during the past decade shows that free tuition fails to change the college-going patterns of low-income students and quickly becomes an entitlement for those students who need it the least.”

Wrong. That’s the experience of merit-based aid programs. Not Free College.

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