A recent study, “The Economic Impact of Increasing College Completion,” commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, concludes that “college dropouts forgo the majority of the benefits of higher education.” Of course access is critically important, since a task cannot be completed unless it is begun, but if we devise a plan to increase access without simultaneously working to increase completion, the waste of human and financial resources will be enormous.
First, some context: According to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate among full-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees at public institutions in the United States is 61 percent. Note that this is a six-year graduation rate for what is often described optimistically as a “four-year degree.” The three-year graduation rate among full-time, degree-seeking students at public institutions offering an associate degree — that is, at community colleges — is 27 percent.
Numbers can sometimes pass by us without making much impact, but these are worth extended contemplation: Nearly 40 percent of students at public bachelor’s-degree institutions do not graduate within six years; nearly three-quarters of students at community colleges do not graduate within three years. These are the students who “forgo the majority of the benefits of higher education.” This is a national disgrace.
Any plan to increase the enrollment of students at these institutions, if it is to achieve its intended social purpose, must work simultaneously to increase the percentage who graduate, and there is good reason to believe that the Biden plan would have the opposite effect.
Policy that shifts students from institutions with higher completion rates to those with lower completion rates is self-defeating.
First, it is likely that any plan to make public institutions free for a substantial portion of the population would decrease enrollments at private institutions, which would continue, of necessity, to charge tuition. A study commissioned by the Campaign for Free College estimates that the Biden plan, if enacted, would reduce enrollment at four-year private institutions over “several years” by 12.3 percent. Over the same period, enrollment at four-year public institutions would increase by 17.7 percent. While an enrollment shift of that magnitude might not threaten the most selective private colleges and universities, it is likely to put others out of business and force many more to make drastic cuts, so that a sector-wide decline of 12.3 percent might be understated.
The problem with this shift is that, even when controlling for selectivity and level of academic preparedness, private four-year institutions graduate students at a higher rate than do public institutions: 67 percent compared with 61 percent. There are many reasons for this, but the difference has been remarkably persistent over time. Policy should not be designed merely to preserve the existence of any particular colleges, but policy that shifts students from institutions with higher completion rates to those with lower completion rates is clearly self-defeating.
Absent both tuition from all or most students and more funding from the states, the only source of additional resources for public institutions will be the federal government. To get a sense of how well this is likely to work, examine the history of the federal Pell Grant. In 1975 the grant covered 79 percent of the average cost of college; in 2015 it covered 29 percent. The government is much better at starting programs than at increasing the funding necessary to keep those programs working effectively.
To be fair, the report commissioned by the Campaign for Free College predicts that the lessening of financial pressure on students will increase the graduation rates at public institutions. Perhaps. But that report makes no mention of funding levels for institutions or of the role played by advising, student-support services, student-faculty interaction, and many other factors that depend upon funding and that have been shown to have a major impact on completion rates.
Finally, the Biden proposal, like most plans for increasing college access, focuses on price rather than cost: It is not actually about “free college” but about shifting the cost of an expensive service from one place to another. Altering the price of college by making it free to the student does nothing to deal with the problem of the increasing cost of providing a college education. Unless we figure out a way to bend the cost curve at both public and private institutions, no pricing plan will solve the access problem over the long term. As costs continue to increase, the money will have to come from somewhere, whether from the student or from the government.
Any sustainable solution to the problems of college access and completion will require sensible and responsible action by both policy makers and institutions. On the policy side, the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to enact a free-college program could be used to increase significantly the size of the Pell Grant or to create a similar grant program targeted at the students with the greatest financial need, whether or not they elect to enroll in public or private colleges.
On the institutional side, there must be a serious, sustained effort to reduce costs while preserving or enhancing quality. If this were easy, someone would already have done it, but the lessons being learned during the pandemic and the responsibility to serve the social good should combine to produce bold experimentation and, eventually, creative solutions. The goal should not be to provide something for nothing, but to provide something that is more effective, affordable, and equitable than the system we have at present.