Free Community College, a Campaign Promise, is Officially on the Table

Education a Headline Issue in Biden’s Address to the Nation

Hello friends, 

As I was listening to President Biden make his address to the nation last night, which included his plans for free community college free and an expansion of Pell Grant spending, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my early days in the think tank world when I’d patiently watch these addresses and wait, with bated breath, for some superficial reference to education to inspire a tweet. You could always count on a reference to K-12 education, but higher education was usually more of a wild card. It’s amazing how far the pendulum has swung on this issue in such a short period of time.

Biden declared his intention to make community colleges free, as he promised in his campaign. As I told the NYT, this will be an experiment in “socialized education after high school.” This plan, which requires states to chip in to match federal dollars to make community colleges tuition free, isn’t one that I’d have come up with, but it isn’t the worst either. Thankfully,  it leaves the greater higher education landscape untouched, as opposed to more ambitious plans for a government takeover of the four-year college space. Though I do expect some private programs that currently compete with community colleges to be a casualty of this effort. Unfortunately, I think this is an experiment that’s on course to fail. Community colleges are almost the worst performing segment of the higher education industry, surpassing only for-profit colleges who charged a higher price for the same dismal outcomes. 

If we’re going to pump more money into higher education subsidies, I’d prefer to have seen it happen strictly through an expansion of Pell such that the funds could be used at schools that would each individual the best (like four-year institutions for those seeking bachelors degrees or specialty programs like those at minority serving institutions) rather than holding them hostage at poor performing community colleges. But I’m also not losing sleep over this change. Community colleges are already essentially free because of the existing Pell Grant program and the low cost of tuition and fees at these institutions. Making community college “free” seems to be more of a political or rhetorical achievement than a policy one. If passed, Biden and Democrats can claim a big win for a relatively small change in policy. And more substantially, the change may cause more economically disadvantaged students to realize that college is, in fact, affordable for them. Time will tell.

I’ve been arguing that the pressure is off the White House to cancel student loans now that Senate Democrats have the ability to pass it through reconciliation with just 51 votes. I usually try to stay in my lane and focus on policy rather than politics, but I really find this to be an interesting development that changes the dynamics of this important political movement. Before I placed my article on the subject, I was afraid that someone would scoop me on this insight. But we’re now a few weeks out from the news and I still haven’t seen others making this point. In retrospect, however, it makes sense that neither Democrats, who’ve lost leverage on this issue, nor Republicans, who lack a compelling alternative to offer, would want to draw attention to the shift.

We’ve hit an exciting milestone on the road to book launch... the first official review is out! This review is one that I’ve been expecting since before I wrote the book. Harvard Professor Christopher Avery wrote that Making College Pay offered valuable practical advice for consumers, but also that my ideas about how innovative solutions can increase college affordability are fantastical.

Unfortunately, this view that innovation is unnecessary, unrealistic, or not happening is a common one in the traditional higher education community. I’m grateful that, as an outsider and observer of that space, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with leaders of innovative efforts and to witness the ways in which they are helping and will help future students. I believe that innovation is the only way we’ll get past many of the challenges that have been plaguing higher education and society for decades. I’m excited about the potential for innovative tools to make education work better for everyone and I’m thrilled that my book will help more people who could benefit from them know they exist. 

Speaking of my book (which I’ll be doing a lot for the next several weeks; sorry, not sorry), I had the opportunity to chat with the sharp team at the American Council on Education on their podcast, DotEDU. Check it out if you want to hear how I got started working on the economics of higher education and want to know the backstory on how Making College Pay came to be! 

That's all for today. Thanks for reading and please do let me know if you have comments, suggestions or recommendations for future podcast topics or guests.

Take care and be nice to each other!


Author of Making College Pay (May 2021)