Cepeda: Promise of free college might be a mirage

Esther Cepeda
on Twitter @estherjcepeda or emial at estherjcepeda@washpost.com
Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO — Gubernatorial candidates in Maryland, Arizona, Connecticut and at least seven other states — plus even more candidates for Congress — are running on plans to make college free or "debt free," according to the industry publication Inside Higher Ed.

But how much impact on college attendance, graduation and lifetime earnings do such programs actually have? There are no definitive answers, but some indicators aren't exactly reassuring.

According to a study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a nonprofit based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the underprivileged don't get a lot out of college and, perversely, those who benefit most from a college degree turn out to be students with middle-class backgrounds.

The institute's analysis of a data set that included 50 years of interviews with 18,000 Americans found that "the career earnings premium from a four-year college degree (relative to a high school diploma) for persons from low-income backgrounds is considerably less than it is for those from higher-income backgrounds ... [and] we find that education not only has much lower absolute returns for persons from low-income backgrounds, it also has much lower proportional returns."

A small earnings boost, coupled with student loans that can never be discharged through bankruptcy, sounds like a raw deal to the first-in-their-family students who have been most encouraged, inspired and practically pushed into pursuing a college degree.

So while the campaign-speech catnip of free college sounds enticing to those who want a shot at a middle-class life, the benefits of a free educational lunch may be nothing more than a crowd-pleasing mirage.

A study by the Brookings Institution on one of the first randomized control trials of a debt-free college program looked at students in the Milwaukee Public Schools program who were promised up to $12,000 to pay for college — an amount that would cover all tuition and fees at the local two-year college or at most of the in-state four-year institutions. But the study found that the incentive had no effect on whether students went directly on to college from high school.

The programs didn't randomly hand out free tuition like candy, either. Students were required to graduate on time from a Milwaukee public high school with at least a 2.5 cumulative grade-point average and a 90 percent class-attendance rate.

The students were also required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which, because it requires parental tax information, often serves as a proxy for how much the student's family supports their desire to attend college.

Still, even though the students in the program did exhibit more motivation to attend college — and filled out more applications to college than they might have otherwise — the totality of the investment in getting the students across the finish line of a degree was not significant. In the end, only 21 percent of the students enrolled in The Degree Project with the Milwaukee schools met the performance requirements to unlock the college funds, basically the same as the control group.

"We identify three related reasons why the effects were not more substantial," the report noted. "(a) The performance requirements greatly reduced the number of students who could plausibly receive the funds; (b) the performance requirements, combined with the temporary, small-scale design, meant that the program did not have the catalyzing effect on high schools that otherwise similar programs have seen; and (c) the context in Milwaukee — particularly, the very low level of academic performance and lack of counselor resources — may have been particularly ill-suited to make a performance-based aid program work well."

Leaving aside the size of the program and its location — though one would have to imagine that communities with low academic performance and few resources would be the most attractive target for such economic-mobility spurring programs — the performance requirements are particularly problematic.

The American public, with its aspirations of meritocracy, seems unlikely to ever support a program that doesn't require, at a minimum, the middling grades that produce a 2.5 GPA (about a high C or low B). This bar can be harder to reach for low-income students who are struggling against many factors to make the grade.

Worse, according to the authors, even though performance standards might seem like they might, "induce students to work harder and become more academically prepared for college," they don't. "The main effect of performance requirements, then, is to provide more funds to higher-income families, which only reinforces existing disparities."

As with so many other well-meaning efforts to reduce inequalities in society, free college seems like it has great potential but requires far more pilot programs and longitudinal research. Before making promises to young people, we must design programs that won't have the unintended consequences of leaving needy students economically insecure after promising them that college is the ticket to a financially prosperous life.