Free College — The Time Has Come

By Sara Goldrick-Rab, president & founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

Let’s tackle a fan favorite:

“Financial aid targeted based on need — like Pell- is doing an awesome job of helping low-income students and we should simply double or triple Pell.” Heard that one? Usually from the left?

There are dozens of problems with this argument, so I wrote a whole book about it. I will hit the highlights here, but let me first just say- it took me a long time to realize these problems were so significant. And it’s painful. Because Pell is a good thing. But reality is:

Pell is a pale shadow of what it was supposed to be. We just celebrated a $150 increase while the grant’s value continued to fall! (2021 update: now it’s a $400 increase — big whoop!) It was supposed to cover 100% of the cost of attending any public.

To get Pell or any “need-based grant” you have to ensure the “means-test.” That means Administrative Burden. Read this book by Pam Herd and Don Moynihan and you’ll see the consequences.

Quick primer:

  • Burden of learning about how to apply and how to do the means-test; aka FAFSA
  • Burden of complying with all the damn rules. So many rules. Do you even know what SAP is???
  • Burden of stress of trying to qualify and game the system when you don’t!

Those are just the burdens on the prospective students. Think about all the Administrative Burden on the frontline workers — think about NASFAA!! All of those people dealing with all of that paperwork and rules and regs every damn day. To sort the “deserving” from the rest.

And let’s talk about cliff effects. Hey middle class, how do you love being told you can afford college and don’t need any help? How’s that working for ya right now? Ever made an extra dollar and had it all taken away? Except none of that is unintentional. The thing about means-testing is that liberals fall for it because “we give the most money to the poor” while the conservatives snicker because the real effect is to divide and conquer. This is all about class warfare. Guess who loses?

Let’s talk more about how “middle-class people are gonna take low income peoples seats” … Earlier I disabused you of the notion that the capacity issue isn’t resolvable. It is- with money. Public higher education isn’t going “Please no, don’t make me grow!” (That’s Harvard.)

Face facts: Public higher ed is segregated right now.

I’ll pick on community colleges for illustration. Segregated community colleges? Yes. What you call “diverse” I’ve shown is actually segregated. 25% of community colleges are predominantly minority (at least 65% non-white) 25% are predominantly white (avg % minority is just 8%) The rest can hardly be called integrated.

Right now geography and price barriers drive segregation among institutions in public higher ed. We can do something about that. We can reduce the price barriers. And we can tackle those catchments for community colleges.

People tell me: “We are lying to students! It’s wrong!”

Let’s think about it: Free college might not be free for two reasons.

  1. Students who think they qualify actually don’t.
  2. There are still expenses beyond tuition.

The first is a problem in state programs with lotsa rules. States are making up all sorts of rules to ration in their free college programs, the same way colleges make up all kinds of rules to ration scholarships.

“You there- the kid from Utah who plays violin and wants to be a vet and whose parents didn’t attend college! Yes YOU!”

But they aren’t always doing this because they want to. Many are rationing because without federal help they can’t afford a universal program. That was the case in Oregon and Rhode Island and Michigan. Others ration because it makes them feel powerful.

Under federal free college, this isn’t an issue. The Feds set the terms for universality. Do you see anyone being told they can’t attend public high school because they make too much or not enough or want to take too few courses or have kids or are undocumented???

So then there is the other issue — yes there are costs beyond tuition.

First, most Americans say “duh!” There are fees at free libraries, tolls on public highways, and supplies to buy at public high schools. No one says “then it’s not free.”

Second, we don’t have to address living expenses via free college legislation. There are plenty of alternative ways to support those with complementary policies. Or, we can. And most are proposing we do. I suggest both.

PS. Why more education is a good thing in the so-called Information Age.

Let’s start by thinking about my 7th grader. What do his teachers need to cover? Well the usual- reading comprehension, math, geology…but guess what else? — Ethical decision-making in the age of online info — 30 years more history than I had to learn — geopolitics.

And so much more. Basically, they have at least 10–15% more material to cover in a single year than my teachers had to cover in 1990. And this happens every year. All the extra stuff adds up. To make it work, the current approach is cutting. We cut shop, home economics, art, language

They cut stuff to cram it all in - and then we complain “ Kids these days don’t know stuff! “ Really??? They do. They know a lot. And they need more time. In 2020 it takes more than 12 years to learn what you need to know to participate in a profoundly complex world. It’s clear you cannot even just learn about the Constitution. Students needs time to study sociology, political science, psychology, and economics if they are supposed to make heads or tails of what the heck is happening right now!

Frankly, we need a system of public education that supports lifelong learning. It should be high quality, free, full accessible, and flexible. Such a system will pay for itself. And we are stuck arguing whether to go past 12???

PPS. If people talking about #FreeCollege use these phrases, you have my permission to stop listening.

“Skin in the game”

“Kids these days”

“Luxury dorms”

“Overpaid professors”

“Academically adrift”

“Climbing walls”

“Nothing is free”

The next time you read a piece about free college or listen to a pundit, ask these questions:

  • Has this person worked in public higher ed during the last decade? Outside a flagship?
  • Does this person have regular contact with people outside their own social class?
  • Has this person read empirical research on higher ed finance, especially outside of economics, over the last decade?
  • Does this person walk their talk for their own offspring?
  • Can this person put their argument into context with the facts above?

If so, let’s talk.

And yes, you do in Biden’s plan.

Hey if you read this far: Buy this new book on free college. It’s amazing.

Originally published at on April 28, 2021.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of sociology & medicine at Temple University, and president & founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia. She is the chief strategy officer for emergency aid at Edquity, a student financial success and emergency aid company, and she founded Believe in Students, a nonprofit distributing emergency aid.

Interested in sharing your #RealCollege story? Submit here.

Hope is an action research center focused on supporting #RealCollege. Students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store