Now Let's Make College Free | Opinion

After much anticipation, the Biden-Harris administration recently announced that college-student borrowers will have up to $20,000 of their student debt forgiven. Student-debt forgiveness is an important first step in addressing societal inequities caused in part by structural barriers to wealth-accumulation, labor-market discrimination, and the predatory practices of many private, for-profit colleges. Now, we have to make sure no one is crushed by student debt in the first place.

We must reinvest in public higher education.

The benefits of higher education are well documented. Higher levels of education lead to better jobs, healthier lives, a stronger economy, and a more civically-engaged society. But we are poised to miss out on many of these benefits, both individually and collectively. In the last few years, we have seen precipitous drops in college enrollment. These declines are especially pronounced at community colleges, which mostly serve low-income students. This is a warning sign that inequities in educational opportunity could grow. Even worse, higher education is about to get more costly, which could further restrict access for students with the greatest financial need. Fitch, a credit ratings agency, projects that tuition is set to increase as inflation strains college budgets. This means even more students will have to choose between skipping out on college or taking on burdensome debt.

It is time to make college free. Research shows that free-college programs increase college enrollment, especially among students who have been historically underserved in higher education. To be sure, financial aid that is targeted to those who need it the most seems more economically efficient than making college free for all. But free-college programs have much larger effects on college enrollment than other forms of financial aid or reductions in college tuition alone. This is partly because the simple and straighforward "free college" message is a strong motivator to attend college, especially for those who don't otherwise think they can afford it.

People walk on a university campus
People walk on a university campus. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Because of its effectiveness, making college free is a public investment that would pay for itself.

We can start by making community college free, which is less costly than including four-year universities. Free community college would also channel public dollars to institutions that serve all students, regardless of their backgrounds. While there is some concern that free community college could steer students away from four-year colleges, which have better outcomes on average, we have evidence that making community college free can increase not just associate's degree completion but also transfer to a four-year university and bachelor's degree attainment. What's more, increases in these outcomes appear larger for Hispanic and Native American students. This can happen when two-year colleges and four-year universities work together to improve transfer pathways for students who wish to continue their education.

In addition to making community college free, we need to increase public support for these institutions. Community colleges have significantly fewer resources than their four-year counterparts. Four-year universities spend considerably more per student than two-year colleges, even when you ignore expenditures related to research and other activities that are less central to the community college mission. This is partly because community colleges have less access to other sources of cash than many four-year universities. Community colleges earn less revenue on average from residence halls, dining halls, bookstores, and other so-called "auxiliaries." Moreover, because community colleges usually have open-access missions, they charge lower tuition and fees, which means they also generate less income from these sources.

These funding inequities across higher education institutions are compounded by the fact that community colleges serve the students with the greatest needs (those who come from lower income and wealth backgrounds and who may not have had access to rigorous K-12 curricula).

We have it exactly backwards.

If we are to fulfill the promises of higher education, we must invest in community colleges. Greater investment in community colleges will enable them to offer student supports that will improve student outcomes, including transportation, access to books, personalized advisement, and emergency financial aid. By making community college free and investing in these institutions, students will have greater access to—and be better served by—them.

Student-debt forgiveness is just the start of the structural changes needed to realize the promise of higher education, including social mobility and enrichment for individuals and economic and civic prosperity for society. We must now tackle the barriers that lie ahead. We are in a critical moment that can define the future of higher education and its ability to fulfill its promises. Powerful forces like pandemic-induced struggles, inflation and rising tuition prices, and growing distrust of higher education, stand to rob opportunities from the students who could benefit the most from higher education, those who are least likely to go to college in the first place. If we fail to act, existing inequities will continue to deepen. Now is the time to reinvest in public higher education.

Denisa Gándara is an OpEd Project Fellow at UT Austin. She is an assistant professor in the department of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.