“Free College” Isn’t Enough: Four Pieces to a Progressive Education Platform

Alex Serna, New Leaders Council Los Angeles

Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few,” says Senator Bernie Sanders in the College for All Act that will “eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities for families making up to $125,000” along with, “reduce crushing student loan debt loads for students’. True, college is a right, but free college by itself will not make it accessible for all. In the 2018 House elections, countless progressive campaigns will exclaim “FREE COLLEGE!” as a boilerplate platform in hopes of reforming higher education. While those intentions come from a compassionate place, the actual policy impact is what transforms lives for better or worse. We need more. And, affording college is one, very critical part. Free and debt-free college will help you graduate.

But we need policies to get students from underrepresented backgrounds into the door and eventually help them walk across the stage to get their college degree. If we authentically want to say that college is a right for all, we need solutions gleamed from the experiences of individuals who’ll be most impacted by those policies. We need solutions that are comprehensive, collaborative and consistent over time. We needs solutions that address the many facets that entail accessing, succeeding and persisting in college. It starts in a Geometry class in southern California.

I couldn’t sit still. My mind drifted between winning this next game of craps and Mr. Dalton’s monotone, unenthused ramblings about proofs and angles in 6th period Geometry. “YES!” I exclaimed, “seven-eleven!, I won!” I added. Learning math was the last thing I cared about in high school. I’m certain Mr. Dalton loved what he taught, I just couldn’t get myself to care. Later that semester speaking with my guidance counselor, I asked to be removed from Geometry to add a second automotive class. She replied, “sure, you’re not going to college anyway.”

I was raised by two parents who emigrated from Mexico, and they knew college would get us out of poverty and reminded me everyday that it was the solution. I let their pleas be drowned out by my own apathy. I graduated high school with a 2.1 gpa and was a signature away from enlisting in the military to join the infantry and fight in Iraq. At 17, I become a father. I never saw myself attending college, even more I didn’t see myself surviving as a college student because I believed I was a below-average student.

When my daughter Aubrey was born half a year later, amid the flow of students going to and from class, I sat on the concrete bench in the middle of the quad reading and re-reading the same paragraph of my introduction to psychology class, struggling to understand the difference between Freud and Jung as a community college student. I felt like I was in a black hole. Five years later, my black graduation gown flowing through the air, the crisp bay area breeze enveloping my tear-filled face, feeling a deep sense of joy I reached to shake the hand of Chancellor Birgeneau at Berkeley to get my degree and graduate college. Seven years later, I would do a similar walk in west Los Angeles when I become an educator and earned my master’s degree. My parents, 4 children and 6th period-Geometry Alex couldn’t be more proud. What transpired from high school to graduate school, along my very circuitous pathway gives light to the policies that along with affordable and debt-free college can secure a prosperous future for many.

I know better than most that the personal is political, and the political is personal. To best formulate policies that are impactful, relevant and people-focused, candidates and campaigns need to listen and understand the people those decisions ultimately impact. “Mostly we rely on stories to put our ideas into context and give them meaning,” President of IDEO Tim Brown notes in Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. My story is only one story, but through anecdote, experience as a college access professional and current research, I hope to argue that “free college” isn’t enough. It is but one piece to the puzzle of reforming higher education to be more equitable, accessible and inclusive for all students regardless of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex or citizenship. Because graduating college can transform a life, a family and generations, along with benefiting the country.

College completion is an investment that pays high returns for lives and the economy. New research from The American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Moody’s Analytics found that, “ raising the level of attainment of higher education degrees has historically yielded long-run economic and social benefits in the United States” including, “ increas[ing] average earnings by 3.1 percent . . . increas[ing] employment by 0.5 percent” (1–2). These effects grow as time elapses. For individuals, graduating college has a wide array of benefits from reducing the likelihood of unemployment, reliance on public assistance, healthier lifestyles and “4% of bachelor’s degree recipients age 25 and older lived in poverty, compared with 13% of high school graduates.” as noted in the CollegeBoard’s, “Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society”.

The overwhelming evidence suggests that a college degree is beneficial for all. Unfortunately, not all benefit. Gaps in access to college and degree attainment are stark. According to the Pell Institute, “after six years, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students had earned bachelor’s degrees compared to 55 percent of their more advantaged peers.” The drastic divide in the face of immense benefits for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and risk for the country’s future economic vitality should raise bipartisan alarm to rectify this unnerving reality. In a deeper sense, our national fabric and values are intertwined with the need to provide access to higher education to all citizens, Thomas Jefferson advised that, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”. We should all heed his warning.

Financial aid didn’t get me into college, nor was it the sole factor helping me graduate. Affording college does matter. The Department of Education under the Obama Administration reported that, “over the past three decades, tuition at public four-year colleges has more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation.” My mom was unemployed after suffering a massive stroke when I was nine and my dad worked as a cook for a state-sponsored drug rehabilitation center, so they couldn’t afford the $30,540 cost of attending UC Berkeley. No matter how much my parents loved me and wanted me to go to college they couldn’t afford to contribute, so I’m deeply grateful for the financial support I received. But, as noted by the former administration in the same report, “cost and debt are only part of the story — we need increased focus on student success.”

So, what policies besides free college need to be included? It starts and ends with people, relationships and trust. A gregarious, relentless and unapologetic college counselor and a compassionate, supportive and rigorous teacher took me from the back of class playing craps to the top of my graduating class.

And, in the following four-part series, I hope to share the rest of my story, alongside arguing for three additional pieces to include with affordable and debt-free college progressive platforms if we truly want to say that we believe in college for all.

Part one of a four part series.

Alex Serna is a program director for an education nonprofit with the mission to support students underrepresented in higher education to become the first in their families to graduate college. He’s a 2017 New Leaders Council Los Angeles fellow and a Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 2017 Emerging Leader. He received his B.A. from UC Berkeley and M.Ed from UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @alsernabjj