This week New Jersey governor Phil Murphy proposed that our state’s free public college tuition program be extended from community colleges to the second two years at four-year public colleges.
The program, which will cost $50 million, is limited to students whose families earn $65,000 or less. In a spring 2019 pilot program, New Jersey sent over 5,400 students to “free” community college for a total of roughly $6 million. These colleges committed to fill gaps in need that could not be filled through state and federal financial aid. There are also “last dollar in” programs at Rutgers’s Newark and Camden campuses as well as The College of New Jersey. The Garden State has a relatively generous Tuition Aid Grant program. But that sometimes comes up short for the neediest students.
New Jersey also has a merit-based scholarship program, NJ STARS for high achieving students who want to start their education at a community college, then finish at a public four-year school in-state. Students must minimum a 3.25 GPA in order to keep the aid. Rutgers also made a commitment to raise student wages to $11/hour, higher than the state or federal minimum wage.
I’ve always been supportive of these efforts in my home state. I am also supportive programs that allow high school students or the unemployed to take courses at community colleges or at the public college campus close to home. I have also been supportive of educational benefits tied to military service for active duty service members, reserves and veterans. These programs targeted to people who either needed help or earned the assistance. The merit-based programs are tied to college grades.
But they, and similar programs in other states, are not Free Public College Tuition and Fees for All, as proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential aspirant from Vermont.
This is the exact wording from Senator Sanders’ Web site:
Pass the College for All Act to provide at least $48 billion per year to eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs. Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income.
Such a program would replace all existing federal grant programs and possibly replace the state merit-based and need-based aid programs, too. It would also replace the tuition and fee portion of other programs such as ROTC, military benefits and scholarship athletics at public colleges. Ideally, a state could use the money spent on tuition assistance towards other education related purposes, but that depends on the voters.
However, as I read the last sentence I get concerned: those who can afford to cover the costs of tuition and fees at their state colleges would pay nothing. There is no mention of any obligation to be in good academic standing or to be making progress towards a degree. Not to mention that many who attend college need more than tuition and fees to help them finish. They have difficulty covering the costs of meals, books, housing or commuting to school.
Aside from a shift in resources to people who do not need them, and no mention of academic standards, there are concerns from the college admissions perspective. Suppose Rutgers-New Brunswick and The College of New Jersey, the most selective public colleges in our state, charged residents nothing for tuition and fees. Wouldn’t that drive up applications to those schools, even from students who did not intend to come?
My feeling is yes, especially for programs in business, engineering and health professions that already have competitive admissions. Those who plan on further education would likely apply to these two schools, even if they did not plan to go. The volume of applications to both schools would be higher than they should be.
New Jersey is not like California where acceptance rates to UC-Berkeley and UCLA are less than 15 percent. Our residents are more supportive of a flagship state university and a top-performing mid-sized college that their children, or their friend’s or relative’s children, have a fair chance at admission. Free public college for all would make that less possible.
The Sanders campaign makes a point that some of the best public colleges and universities were essentially free for students 50 years ago. However, the demands placed on public colleges and universities were far less ten than they are now. Tuition and fees cover not only the costs of instruction, but also support services that students need in order to go from the first day of college to a rewarding life after they leave. Colleges have added support for career development, academic advising, mental health counseling and residence life, among other student services. The costs of these services do not, and should not, decrease from year to year.
Back when university systems such as the City University of New York and the University of California charged no tuition and fees they had little to no incentive to track student retention and graduation rates. There was always another student ready to come for free. Enrollments could remain steady when the school was essentially a commuter school. There was always a student to occupy a seat in the next freshman class, or transfer in from another two or four-year college. The state or local subsidy was always there. It isn’t anymore. Today, as one example, less than a fifth of Georgia Tech’s operating budget comes from the State of Georgia.
Today, public colleges such as Georgia Tech work harder to retain the students that they already have. In 1993, for example, Georgia Tech retained 85 percent of their freshman class, according to reports on their Web site. The school retained 97 percent of the freshmen who arrived 24 years later. Operating under a merit-based scholarship system Georgia Tech has had every incentive to help its students to succeed. Under a scholarship system with no conditions it would not.
Because of co-op and bachelors-masters programs, Georgia Tech students typically need five years to graduate. Fifty-six percent of the freshmen who arrived in 1993 finished their degrees in five years or less. The five-year graduation rate for Georgia Tech students who arrived in 2013? 92 percent.
Among these reasons for Georgia Tech’s success: better academic advising. Tech’s students also receive some of the best career development services you will find at any college anywhere. But at the same time, Georgia Tech has become more and more selective. In 2014 the school accepted a third of the applicants to its freshman class. Four years later just over a fifth got in.
Another argument for free public college is that those denied at their first choice school will choose another in-state public college as their second choice. As a result the quality of the students at the second choice school will be better. That might have been true at times at least one public college in Georgia.
Most recently, Georgia College and State University (GCSU) has graduated about half of its freshman classes on time. GCSU retained 70 percent of a freshman class in 1998. But retention has stayed at 83 percent since 2012. The average SAT for enrolled students rose past 1200 and the average high school GPA surpassed 3.6. Its fair to say that GCSU was attracting statistically better students who made better progress towards the degrees.
GCSU has increased the size of its freshman classes from less than 1,200 to nearly 1,500 since 2008. But the yield rate, the percentage of accepted students who chose to come dropped from 51 to 42 percent as acceptance rates rose from 68 to 80 percent. Almost everyone who attends this school comes from Georgia. But I had to wonder: Were current and prospective students spreading the word that GCSU had reached a tipping point in terms of the services it could provide to help its students succeed academically, financially and socially?
GCSU charges residents approximately $9,500 in tuition and fees. The University of Georgia charges close to $12,000. Georgia Tech charges around $12,800. Suppose GCSU wanted to invest more in student success to retain and graduate its students at rates closer to the flagship schools? How would state government and a university administration react to working with a federal agency to implement better student success programs? Most likely, not well. Would the state government, students or families cover the costs anyway?
I cannot speak for Georgia politicians. But parents would be unhappy about being asked to pay for something that they’ve been asked to pay nothing before. They would also be unhappy if they were asked to pay the same as those families who send their children to the flagship schools.
Suppose a future Congress and president decided not to raise the subsidy for public college tuition and fees, but to reduce or eliminate it. States would react by either picking up the cost, or by cutting education spending to keep tuition and fees at lower levels. If the public colleges were popular destinations for non-residents such as Georgia Tech, they could react by seeking more students from other states and countries. Georgia Tech has had no problem attracting those students. They accepted only 16 percent of them into this year’s freshman class. But the number from in-state would decline further. The regional public college like GCSU would have a tougher time looking elsewhere for new students.
Free Public College for All might sound good on a bumper sticker. But it will make the more selective public colleges even more selective. It will not help to improve the services that students at every public college, regardless of selectivity, will need to finish the education that they started and move on to life after college.
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