Week 2: Free College?

Mar 20, 2021

Welcome back, everyone! This week, I spent time researching ways to increase access rates, specifically about the prospect of “free college”.

The idea of free public colleges has been picking up steam over the past few years, which made me wonder if this was an economically viable option to increase low-income student enrollment and graduation rates. Intuitively, it would make sense for public colleges to be free. The higher-income students would be more likely to attend a private university and low-income students would be more likely to attend a public university since it is now free. According to sdnews.com, the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) established the San Diego Promise program in 2016, which made a two-year degree program (including textbooks, counseling, and hands-on support) free at San Diego City, Mesa, and Miramar community college. This program caused record numbers in enrollment, with a freshman enrollment of around 2,300 students. Similar programs in other states have shown an increase in completion rates as well. What I wondered about earlier turned out to be true, but now I have a new wonder. What about low-income students who have the qualifications and interest to attend a private university? What about higher-income students who want to go to public school to save money?

Not all people believe free public college is the right answer. According to a research paper titled “Student Loans and Social Mobility” by Wharton student Mehran Ebrahimian, making public colleges tuition-free would benefit wealthy students, but expanding Pell Grants would benefit lower-income students. Also, making public colleges tuition-free would cost around $57 billion and cause a $15 billion deadweight loss, whereas expanding Pell Grants would cost much less. So, what is the real issue?

The issue is not with the colleges, but with high, middle, and even elementary schools. Many students are not prepared for college due to poor education. Ebrahimian has suggested spending the money that would be used to make public colleges free on high school education or as subsidies to families with young children. More than the fact that tuition is high, is the fact that many low-income students do not know about certain colleges that would be described as “good fits” for them. There has also been a growing sentiment that college is “not worth it”, which prompts many students to enter the labor force right out of high school instead of continuing their education. I believe this can be solved through programs where college representatives target low-income neighborhoods and schools and educate the students about their potential future. Hopefully, I will be able to talk to some real college reps soon to understand their methodology for reaching out to these communities.

Next week I will be looking at how city structure affects social mobility. See y’all then!

4 Replies to “Week 2: Free College?”

  1. Karan M. says:

    Really interesting stuff Neel! I’m glad to hear you talk about underprivileged communities. Education in the U.S. is significantly more expensively than any other country.

  2. Mr. Loomis says:

    With the enormously large endowments most universities have these days, they really don’t need student tuition to cover their operating costs. So, most of them could offer free, or extremely reduced costs for students from lower income families.

  3. Eric M. says:

    This all seems really interesting! What’s your position on the issue? Do you see a solution for/possible in the foreseeable future?

    1. Neel D. says:

      I think we can reduce public college tuition to an amount the average low-income family can afford to pay. Colleges could easily reduce tuition with all the endowment money they get and then the government could spend more money on elementary, middle, and high school education. As a temporary solution, we can reduce tuition and forgive student loans, but if we want to solve this issue, we need to improve our primary and secondary education systems.

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