AIF Blog

Should College Be Free?

Apr 07, 2016
Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, debates the free college question at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
It’s a question of fierce debate but not much progress lately: What to do, if anything, about the escalating cost of college and expanding burden of student debt? President Obama wants to make two-year community colleges free — his proposal, dubbed America’s College Promise, has stalled in Congress even as the idea has been picked up at some local and state levels.
Debating this question at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, a panel of academic experts agreed in principle with Obama’s proposal, while raising a number of other issues and potential solutions to the cost — and quality — of higher education.
“We’re all in agreement about the value of the message,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which works to expand student access to higher education. Community colleges absorb a majority of degree seekers, especially minorities and people of color, so making two-year degrees free could go a long way toward “narrowing gaps” in American society, Merisotis argued. But, he added, “the devil really is in the details.”
Kevin Carey, education policy program director for New America, questioned whether making community college free is a big enough step.
“Community college has always been close to free, and it is today,” he pointed out, adding that students who don’t work full time to pursue a college education have the cost of living and supporting themselves to worry about, too. 
Carey also noted that budget cuts in higher education during the recession reduced the number of classes offered to students, so that enrollment declined and fewer students had access to a quality degree.
“So it needs to be free good college, so you can get the classes you need,” he said. “And my fear is that free college on the cheap sacrifices quality.”
Merisotis agreed that making community college tuition-free makes it sound easier to achieve than it really is. The rising cost pressure of higher education has to do with increasing disinvestment from governments, a stagnant middle class that finds it more and more difficult to pay for it, and, simply put, market forces.
“I think colleges and universities are driven to become more expensive partly because they’re in a really favorable market,” said Carey. “Because the terrible consequences of not having a college degree have risen over time. So there’s a lot of pricing power in the market.”
Even though three decades of college tuition rising at double the rate of inflation has put a lot of pressure on families, Merisotis thinks the high cost may have an unexpected outcome. He referenced a result from a 1980s study dubbed the “Chivas Regal effect” — Americans’ willingness to pay more for something based on its perceived higher value. 
“Free has consequences,” said Merisotis. “Debt-free might be a better goal.”
In 2015, outstanding student debt reached $1.2 trillion and had quadrupled over the past twelve years. One consequence of high debt is the pressure it places on students to go into higher-paying careers, making it that much harder to fill much-needed ranks of social workers and teachers, for example.
“We’re talking about a nontrivial number of people whose engagement with higher education is catastrophic to them financially,” said Carey. He added that the discussion should be about restoring what the United States had for a few decades that proved to be broadly beneficial — not universally free, but rather affordable higher public education. 
In this video clip, Merisotis explains what might and might not bring down the cost of higher education, and more importantly, how new ways of thinking might better correlate to the value of a degree.
Watch the full session here.
By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger