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What’s Out: Student Debt. What’s In: Free College.

Originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education June 11, 2014
Proposals for making college tuition-free gain ground with backing from a new politically connected coalition.

Student-debt relief plans are all the rage these days in Washington, but a more-radical idea is also gaining some ground: making college free.
In 2013 the idea was aired in a much-discussed book by a faculty-labor activist in California. Then this year it was enacted for community colleges as theTennessee Promise, and promoted in a different form as two years of free college by a University of Wisconsin professor in an attention-grabbing proposalpresented publicly at a Lumina Foundation event and privately at the White House.
Next week a new coalition called Redeeming America’s Promise will unveil its free-college proposal—a call to create an American Promise Scholarship program that would provide federally funded grants to allow students to complete degrees at two-year and four-year colleges. The scholarship amounts would be roughly equal to the average price of public-college tuition.
The coalition’s proposal would also require participating colleges to charge students no more than the amount of the scholarships, in effect creating a cap on college prices.
Like the earlier proposals—from Robert Samuels, president of the union that represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison—the coalition’s proposal would pay for the costs of free college largely by reallocating federal money that now funds other educational programs, such as tuition tax breaks.
Paying for college is "the No. 1 financial concern of anybody with children in America," said Morley Winograd, the group’s founder and president, and a onetime top adviser to former Vice President Al Gore. So the coalition, he said, wants to start a national conversation about college, "sort of like the conversation that Horace Mann started" that led to universal elementary and secondary education.
The coalition includes nearly two dozen other former government officials and policy advocates, many of them alumni of the Clinton administration, along with former members of Congress and chiefs of staff for Democratic governors. It also includes Common Sense Action, an organization for the "Millennial" generation; a former governor of Michigan, James J. Blanchard; and a former head of the Association of Private-Sector Colleges and Universities, Harris N. Miller. Some prominent Republicans have also signed on, but they are not due to be identified until the coalition’s news conference, next Tuesday in Washington.

Focus on the Millennials

Redeeming America’s Promise formed about a year ago with a group assembled by Mr. Winograd.
The participants had a common concern, Mr. Miller said: "whether we were providing for our children and grandchildren the same educational opportunity that our parents provided us."
It was a particularly resonant concern for Mr. Winograd. He is a co-author of several books on the Millennial generation, those born from 1982 through 2003, who as a group are now paying a bigger share of the costs of college than did their predecessors and who are borrowing more to cover those costs.
Mr. Winograd had studied earlier examples of free higher education, such as the City University of New York prior to the mid-1970s, and philanthropic programs that guarantee free college tuition to grade-school children, like the Kalamazoo Promise. He proposed that the coalition develop an idea that could counter the problem of economic immobility, and saw education as the key.
Other solutions, like student-debt relief, "seemed to be nibbling around the edges of the problem," said Mr. Miller.
The coalition’s founders were also mindful of intergenerational issues. Repeatedly in its proposal, the group states that its plan would neither require additional federal taxes nor "further burden future generations by financing these proposals by increasing the nation’s overall debt."
Zakiya Smith, strategy director for Lumina and a former policy adviser in President Obama's White House, said the emergence of these free-college proposals in the past year reflected the tenor of the times. "People are just resentful of the increasing costs and amount of debt," she said.
While she doubts that the recent proposals, or much anything of substance, could gain traction in the current partisan political climate, Ms. Smith said she appreciated that proposals like Ms. Goldrick-Rab’s, for example, highlighted that the costs of going to college include not just tuition but also necessities like food, transportation, and child care. "Those are the real barriers," she said.
Mr. Samuels, who argued his big idea in Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (Rutgers University Press, 2013) and in an essay for The Chronicle, said the prevalence of student debt and studies showing its effect as a drag on the economy may be making more mainstream an idea that seemed otherwise outlandish even a few years ago. "It’s affecting more and more people," he said.
Mr. Winograd cited a more pragmatic reason that the idea could fly. By 2016, Millennials will make up 30 percent of the adult population, and by 2020, 36 percent. And while they are diverse demographically, they share many political beliefs, including, he said, faith in a more-activist government. In other words, they form a bloc of voters that politicians will want to please.
Mr. Winograd said the financial underpinnings of the coalition’s plan have also passed muster with outside reviewers, including the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based research organization.

Raising Concerns

Still, the proposals aren’t universally popular. For example, Ms. Goldrick-Rab’s idea—described in a paper, "Redefining College Affordability: Securing America’s Future With a Free Two-Year-College Option," written with Nancy Kendall, a colleague at Madison who is also an associate professor of educational-policy studies—would pay for two years of community college or public four-year college, plus stipends and work-study jobs to cover living expenses. But it would do so by reallocating federal funds that now go to support students at private and for-profit colleges. Supporters of those institutions have not exactly warmed to that idea.
Mr. Samuels recently saw his proposal attacked in a book review by Laura W. Perna, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kata Orosz, a Ph.D. student there. They questioned his data and his logic.
"We do need a recalibration" of the balance between what students pay and what governments pay for higher education, Ms. Perna said in an interview. That’s an argument that needs to be made, she said, "but we have to be careful how we make it."
The Redeeming America’s Promise proposal, too, has raised concerns among those who have seen it. In fact, some of the group’s early members decided not to sign the final proposal for fear that it would hamstring colleges because of its requirement that colleges not charge more in tuition than the cost of the scholarships. The scholarships would run about $2,000 a year for community colleges and about $8,500 a year at four-year colleges. Only students with high-school GPAs of at least 2.75 could qualify for the four-year grants.
Other countries with free tuition "tend to have very exclusive systems," said Robert M. Shireman, executive director of California Competes and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education. With the coalition’s proposal, said Mr. Shireman, who was not part of the group but did see a copy of its plan, "there is a serious potential of undermining access" because public colleges might not be able to serve that many students at that price.
When California cut funding for community colleges a few years ago, he noted, the colleges shut out tens of thousands of students because the institutions couldn’t afford to serve students on what they were paying in tuition. "We need to make sure we’re not just looking at price but supply," Mr. Shireman said.
Mr. Winograd said he believed colleges would come up with other sources of funds. "They are finding other resources now," he said.
Some Millennial groups that have seen the proposal disliked that it was open to for-profit colleges, Mr. Winograd said. They felt that such institutions had "ripped off a lot of members of their generation," he said. Both Mr. Winograd and Mr. Miller said the group had decided not to exclude for-profit institutions, or private nonprofit colleges, even though they doubted many of them would choose to participate.
Mr. Miller, who noted that he had not worked for the for-profit-college association for three years, said the proposal, which also calls for loans of up to $10,000 to be paid back based on income, was aimed at public colleges. "I would think that for-profit schools, especially the ones that are expensive, would find this very objectionable," he said.

Uncertain Prospects

What’s next for the plans is unclear. Ms. Goldrick-Rab said she could not comment on how the White House had responded to her plan, and Ms. Smith, of Lumina, said the foundation wasn’t going to champion that proposal or any of the others recently presented to Lumina, but would incorporate some of the ideas into future grant-making.
Mr. Winograd said he hoped the Redeeming America’s Promise’s proposal, which has already gathered more than 1,800 "likes" on Facebook, would be considered by candidates in the 2016 presidential race and perhaps even as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is now under way.
For Adolph Reed, a University of Pennsylvania professor of political science who has been campaigning for broad-scale, free college on and off for at least a dozen years, the enthusiasm rings familiar. Working in conjunction with unions and other groups, Mr. Reed published articles on the topic in Dissent and other advocacy journals, and estimates he gave about a hundred talks on behalf of the idea. For most of that time, he said, people found it an "eminently reasonable idea" but just far enough outside the "consensus of thinkable" that the campaign never really took off.
The idea is "as viable now as it was 12 years ago—maybe more so," said Mr. Reed. But with a new mainstream group now preparing to champion the idea, Mr. Reed noted that it takes more than a "good idea" to make something a reality. "If there’s not a political interest that has the capacity and the will to agitate around it," he said, "then it will just have its 15 minutes in the news cycle."
But if he is skeptical, he’s also excited. After just a few minutes of conversation, in fact, Mr. Reed was sounding a lot like a man readying a revival of his campaign. "I’d be up for it," he said.