Building Back Better: Beyond Free College

Inside Higher Ed 

Stephen J. Handel and Eileen L. Strempel
August 21, 2021
Free college proposals would only exacerbate the degree completion gap in higher ed, write Stephen J. Handel and Eileen L. Strempel.
“Free college” proposals are at the forefront of state and federal policy making, garnering frequent online and newspaper headlines. Central to these conversations is an almost universal agreement that some postsecondary education is necessary for our nation’s citizens to have a good chance of gaining a family-sustaining job and entering the middle class.
A recent Student Voice survey of 2,035 students reveals significant support for free college proposals during a time when COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of American life. The broad support among students for these proposals is both exciting and promising. Yet it’s not clear that this approach is the best higher education investment we can make as part of the Biden administration plan to Build Back Better.
The survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, found that students are most supportive of free college proposals that cover fees and tuition at community colleges, as opposed to free four-year college. More than 70 percent of students strongly support the free community college movement, and another 19 percent are “somewhat supportive,” which demonstrates a degree of unanimity rarely seen among the populace regarding education policy issues.
Women are more supportive than men (78 percent as compared to 62 percent), perhaps reflecting the rising tide of female participation in college the past two decades, or, perhaps, it’s the understanding that their economic livelihood is especially linked to increasing dependence on skills gained from a postsecondary degree.