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Askwith Essentials: Is "Free College" Really Free?

On Tuesday, January 30, Askwith Debates hosed a panel on free tuition for community college education.

Watch video of this event:

On Tuesday, January 30, HGSE will a host a debate on free tuition for community college education. Panelists will include: David Deming, professor of education and economics at HGSE; Andrew Kelly, senior vice president for strategy and policy at the University of North Carolina System; Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education; and Josh Wyner, founder and executive director, of the College of Excellence President and vice president at the Aspen Institute. Professor Bridget Terry Long at HGSE will serve as the debate moderator.

Debate Prep

The Basics:

In 2015, President Obama initiated the American College Promise, a $60-billion program that grants two years of community college for free for “responsible students.”

  • Expectations for student recipients:
    • enrollment at a community college — at least half time
    • maintenance of a 2.5 GPA, staying on track to graduate
    • adjusted gross income no higher than $200,000
  • Expectations for community colleges:
    • must strengthen programs and offer academic tracks so students are able to transfer into 4-year public institutions after two years

What Supporters Say:

Supporters of free community college for students say that it gives high-performing students an opportunity to attend college without the added burden of finding means to support their studies. Beneficiaries of the program include low-income students who, without the program, might not even consider tertiary education as an option due to the expensive fees. Finally, as 21st-century labor demands shift, a college degree has become the new norm as a requirement in the job market. Those in support of free community college argue that if the new norm for entrants into the job market is a college degree, policymakers and higher education institutions should make tertiary education attainable for students.

What Opponents Say:

Opponents of free community college question how affordable free community college tuition makes higher education for low-income students. While students are relieved of the price of tuition, there are other costs to take into account including textbooks, lodging, and transportation, all of which still remain financial pressures on low-income students. Those in opposition to free community college argue that beneficiaries end up coming from upper-middle class backgrounds rather than low-income households. Opponents also state that there are often poor student outcomes in community college education and so while access may be improved through the American College Promise, quality in community colleges should also be considered as a factor. 

Panelist Positions

David Deming:

In a recent interview, Deming explains, “I support the goal of free college. More than ever, a college degree is a ticket to the middle class. The question is how to get there.” He also argues that, in addition to increasing access, improving quality of tertiary education should be a priority. “College quality matters, and public policy ought to focus equally on improving and maintaining quality so that more students can ultimately earn a degree and go to succeed in the labor market and in life,” he says.

Andrew Kelly:

In Forbes (“Four Reasons to be Skeptical About Obama’s Free Community College Proposal”), Kelly lists his four main concerns:

  • “Will ‘free tuition’ automatically improve community colleges’ often dismal rates of student success?”
  • “Will direct federal funding compel community colleges to improve?”
  • “’Free tuition’ won’t change how much it costs to deliver higher education, which will continue to increase.”
  • “A public monopoly could crowd out promising innovation from the private sector.”

Deborah Santiago:

Santiago argues that free college tuition can help minority students consider higher education as an option when presented as a more affordable choice. In the New York Times (“Free Tuition Can Boost Latinos College Access and Completion Rates) she states, “What ‘free’ college does for the nation’s underserved students is even the playing field on access to college and make it more equitable.”

Joshua Wyner:

Wyner assesses free community college tuition as part of the next step in making a college degree a staple in the labor market as he explains, “With a college education becoming a baseline necessity for success in the job market, ‘tuition-free college’ is the 21st-century equivalent of last century’s push to create universal high school.”

Event Details:

Tuesday, January 30, at 5:30 p.m.
Askwith Hall, Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138