Free College for All, but Where’s the Choice?

In vying for the White House, both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders put forth plans that would make higher education free — either for the most needy or for everyone — as part of their shared platform that education is not a privilege but a right. Both proposals make for strong political pitches in a heated presidential election season. But the glaring realities of each present us with a distorted view of higher education, highlighting the unaddressed dichotomy between freedom of opportunity and freedom of choice.

So what exactly is the problem with increasing access to public higher education per the plans offered by Clinton and Sanders?

The trouble takes root not in who would have access but where students could go tuition free: only to public institutions. Free tuition would cause these institutions severe stress in the face of a sudden surge in enrollment, exacerbating an already-challenging environment that often features overstuffed classes, limited course availability, lack of space and an overreliance on an adjunct faculty pool.

With overcapacity concerns would come an overwhelmed infrastructure, and both academic quality and the student experience would suffer. This would greatly impact students of color and students from working-class families, an academic population heavily enrolled in public institutions and the very students most in need of accessibility options.

If candidates are ready to offer education as a right, why not take the next step and let students choose which college they’ll attend, thereby helping to avert the overriding issue that right would create?

Instead of making public higher education free, accessibility plans should implement a federal grant system through which students would receive up to a certain amount — say $20,000 to $30,000 per year — which would fully cover the costs of a public education or could be used toward the cost at a private, nonprofit institution. Suddenly, private schools with a $60,000 price tag would now cost $30,000, and these schools could more broadly use their existing pool of financial aid funds.

While increasing access to public schools, this approach would also diversify private nonprofit colleges in a way no previous program has done — truly making education a right while offering students the opportunity to choose the experience best for them. This freedom to choose how to exercise their right to education would level the playing field for students and allow many to have an experience that would otherwise be out of reach.

At a pragmatic level, schools like Dickinson — with small class sizes, regular one-on-one faculty contact and flexible support systems — guide and mentor the individual student in a way that large public institutions simply cannot. This intimate, hands-on setting translates to graduation rates averaging 85 percent at Dickinson and 65 percent for private nonprofit institutions nationally, compared with average six-year graduation rates at public universities of 58 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

By excluding private institutions of higher education in college accessibility efforts, students are robbed of real choice, instead offered limited options that will be less valuable than intended. Meanwhile, the public-private divide will still find countless students looking across the chasm at an educational path they wish they could access but still cannot.

If education is truly a right, we need to be sure that, in our efforts to open the doors to college to all, we don’t deprive students and families of the right to choose the brand of experience they seek. Without that choice, opportunities in higher education will remain limited, and private colleges and universities will remain reserved for those with the economic means to perpetuate the status quo. If education is a right — and it should be — then we should offer students both the right to attend college and the right to choose which college is best for them.

 

Dr. Jason Rivera is the director of institutional research at Dickinson College. Previously, he served as director of institutional research at Pitzer College.