Free College or Bust | Just Visiting

It seems overwhelmingly likely that President Joe Biden’s plan for free community college is not going to make the cut if/when the Build Back Better plan passes Congress.

Even though it is not entirely surprising, it is still disappointing, as the plan had the potential to disrupt a status quo that makes any kind of progress toward educational equity almost literally impossible. 

As reported Alexis Gravely, here at Inside Higher Ed, a consortium of thirty-two education and civil rights groups, including Education Trust, the NAACP, and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, issued a statement “condemning” the move.

Absent from that statement were the significant higher education associations.

In fact, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, lobbyists for four-year colleges were advocating against free community college “because four-year institutions are fearful it will cut into their bottom lines.”

This is why we cannot have nice things, or rather, why the nicest things will remain confined to a relatively narrow slice of the populace. I share this observation from Cal-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ often, I’ll do it again here: “Colleges and universities are fundamentally in the business of enrolling students for tuition dollars.”

As long as this is the case, as long as institutional revenue is tied to individual students, whether they be paying out of pocket, or come bundled with Pell grants, scholarships or other aid, we have what Brendan Cantwell and others call a “quasi-market system,” in which institutions are in a zero-sum competition with each other. 

It is terrible that four-year institutions are advocating against the passage of an inititiative that would benefit so many low-income students. 

Is it worse that our current system of higher education makes lobbying against free community college an entirely rational, perhaps even necessary act for the sake of those individual institutions.

Free community college as part of the Build Back Better plan was a chance to break from this quasi-market system, and establish a mechanism where funding comes from a federal/state partnership, the federal money contingent on sufficient state contributions. 

In Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, I argue that free public higher education is a necessity for three primary reasons: 

1. Direct funding of public higher education is the only way to increase the funding to historically underfunded institutions. As long as we have a system where schools compete on prestige and price and revenue follow prestige, those with a mission oriented around access and opportunity will be disadvantaged.

2. Direct funding of public higher education will be a more efficient and cost-effective use of the money that the federal government already puts towards attempting to make college affordable attempts which are failing.

3. Direct funding of public higher education will allow institutions to steer away from an operations orientation (How do we enroll students in order to capture their tuition dollars?) and towards a mission orientation (How do we enhance the potential of students, faculty, staff, and the community in which the institution does its work?)

A couple things seem indisputably true to me if we’re being honest with ourselves:

1. The status quo is in the way of progress towards a mission orientation.

2. A significant proportion of four-year institutions and their leaders are happy with the status quo that privileges competition and status over access and equity.

This is a system that literally does not make sense if access and opportunity are our aims for our post-secondary education institutions. This makes one suspect that rhetoric around access and opportunity are a fig leaf for maintaining a status quo that is in fact fueled by inequality.

One of the reasons I advocate for free public higher ed period – two and four-year institutions – is because of this exact scenario. It is difficult to get people to do the “right” thing when it may not be in their immediate interests.

Still, I think four-year institutions lobbying against free community colleges is terribly short-sighted and inevitably leads only to a continued spiral of austerity, greater divides between the haves and have nots of higher education, and more movement away from the values these institutions claim to believe in (opportunity, access) but seem unwilling to truly live by.

Free community college was a chance to break the spell of the status quo, but too many people in higher education refuse to play the long game and think systemically and structurally. 

It really is free-college or bust for the public sector. Right now, bust is looking inevitable. Starting with free community college would’ve been a clear step in the right direction for all public institutions, and even private institutions who are already mission-focused on access and opportunity. 

I wanted to believe that four-year institutions would see the long term wisdom of a free community college plan that would disrupt a system that is doing so many of them so much harm, but perhaps that was naïve. 

It’s a shame that this opportunity is slipping away. Rather than asking elite institutions to use their massive endowment gains to nudge the needle on equity, as my IHE blogging colleague Steven Mintz did recently, perhaps we tax those gains and use the proceeds to fund the institutions that are already focused on equity. 

There’s still a way to make this necessary transition without falling into the zero-sum trap, but it looks like some of those higher up on the ladder are determined to squander the opportunity as long as they’re always going to be someone on the rungs below them.

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