Free College? The U.S. Should Look at State Models That Are Already Working

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Hillary Clinton’s stance on public higher education — that every American student should be able to graduate from college debt free and, in millions of cases, tuition free — marks the first time that such a bold, expansive proposal has been put forth by…

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Hillary Clinton’s stance on public higher education — that every American student should be able to graduate from college debt free and, in millions of cases, tuition free — marks the first time that such a bold, expansive proposal has been put forth by a major party’s presidential nominee.

This proposition could not come at a more crucial time. As Clinton proposes, and as President Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders have said, we must expand college access like never before and solve the problem of staggering student-loan debt once and for all.

And we can — but the reality is that college can never actually be free. Someone has to pay for our institutions to operate, to educate, to innovate, and to grow.

However, public colleges and universities could make attendance tuition free for students from low- and middle-income families, or roughly 80 percent of the population, if the federal government were to make the necessary investment in higher education that a policy of this magnitude would require. This remains a big "if," at least for the time being, but the fact that the conversation is so prevalent today represents a real opportunity.

State investment in higher education has been in a downward spiral for nearly a decade, forcing an ever-increasing burden onto the shoulders of students and their families. An analysis by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities reveals that between 2007 and 2013, the country’s four-year public colleges saw a $2,370 per-student cut in state investment, in contrast to a $1,940 bump in per-student costs through tuition and fees.

As a nation, we have failed to address this destabilizing trend. However, some state investment models have eased the student-debt burden; here in New York, for example, we have one of the most progressive programs in the country. According to a 2013–14 analysis by the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, New York spent a total of $935.5 million to provide 302,000 full-time undergraduate students with an average award of $1,045 through its Tuition Assistance Program. The other top investor that year, California, spent $1.6 billion to provide 295,000 full-time undergraduate students with an average of $987.

New York has also experienced success with what we call rational tuition. Established in 2012, our five-year policy was an agreement between New York State, SUNY, and students. It included a $300 cap on annual tuition increases, a promise from SUNY to reinvest new revenue back into student services, and a guarantee from the state not to cut our budget from year to year. With predictable tuition and a steady stream of state funds, students and their families were able to plan for the full cost of their education without the fear of unexpected tuition hikes, and colleges were able to do the same for their budgets.

The policy expired recently, but it continues to have the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as SUNY students and faculty. Earlier this year, in fact — even after five years of incremental tuition increases — the SUNY Student Assembly endorsed renewing the policy by a vote of 59-4-1. Imagine that: Students voted overwhelmingly in favor of a policy that allowed their tuition to go up. They did it because they knew — we showed them over the first five years — the policy would mean no surprises and added investment in their education.

This goes to show that college students aren’t looking for handouts. They’re looking for value — degrees that will pay them back through a rewarding career and the benefits that we know come with completing college — and they’re willing to put in their fair share. We need only show them that their investment is being spent wisely.

Of course, college costs encompass more than tuition. Complete transparency about the full cost and a comprehensive effort to educate students about how much to borrow and how to pay it back must be an integral part of any plan to reduce student debt. Again, SUNY has a model. We engage and educate students about the costs of college, and all of the financial-aid options available to them, beginning even before they apply, again once they are accepted, throughout their time enrolled, and into their careers as they formulate and implement a plan to pay off their loans.

Finally, helping students stay on track to graduation is the most effective way to reduce student-loan debt. Through a Completion Agenda that aims to award 150,000 degrees per year (up from 93,000 in 2014), SUNY is expanding programs and incentives for which we have hard, data-based evidence of success. Our progress toward completion is tracked, and individual campus plans outline key strategies toward this goal.

All this is to say that while college is not and never will be truly free, education remains the best investment any one person, state, or nation can make. For all of the headway New York has made in addressing these challenges, we — and every state — could do so much more if federal policies emulated the already effective state programs that are cutting college costs and student debt.

If the United States wants to have the most educated work force in the world, both state and federal governments must step up investments in good policy and proven tools. This election cycle — occurring amid our pressing educational and work-force needs — presents us with a welcome opportunity to encourage progressive changes.

Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York and chair of the National Association of System Heads.


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