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July 8 2016

Debt-Free State Schools is Just K-12 Failure for College Students

Patrice L. Onwuka

The New York Times has an article today bemoaning how public colleges and universities are chasing out-of-state dollars to the detriment to homegrown girls and boys, especially those from low-income communities.

Apparently, it’s increasingly hard for legacy families to ensure that their kids get in to state schools when competing with students from across the country or around the world, who are willing to pay more for the same education.

After wading through the stories of students who want to go to a state school, but probably won’t because of competition from across state lines, the article leads us to believe that their Superman may be plans to drive more federal dollars to state colleges to cover in-state tuition. 

Former Senator Hillary Clinton latched on to this idea with her revised college compact plan that picks public institutions as the winner of additional federal funding to zero out the tuition costs for upper class American families and below. We don’t know how much funding she plans or what the price tag for her plan is.

As we reported yesterday, she wants to zero out tuition for families earning $85,000 now and $125,000 by 2021. Clinton discussed the motivation behind her plan in the context of the in-state v. out-of-state student debate:

Funding cuts have also changed the demographic makeup of the public universities as they seek revenues from outside the state, admitting more and more out-of-state and foreign students. In California, even Mrs. Clinton weighed in.

“We have got to get back to using public colleges and universities for what they were intended,” Mrs. Clinton said during a California campaign stop. “If it is in California, for the children in California. If it is in New York, for the children in New York.”

This sounds a lot like the same rationales used to support quarantining promising elementary, middle and high school students to their failing schools rather than being able to take their vouchers to a school where they have a chance at a good education. It’s the anti-school choice message about propping up mediocrity.

Clinton’s change of heart from requiring students have “skin in the game” of their education to giving free college tuition for (almost) all, is new. However, this movement to limit out of state-of-state students at public institutions is not new, is not necessary, and doesn’t necessarily work. For example, students from low-income communities are not guaranteed to do any better at an in-state state college. Factors other than tuition affect their ability to afford college and succeed in college.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Andrew P. Kelly discussed this over a year ago when dismantling President Obama’s free-community college plan:

First, thanks to federal aid, most low- and middle-income students already pay no net tuition to attend community college, yet student outcomes at two-year colleges are poor. Second, free community college could lead students to “undermatch,” which would lower their odds of completing a degree. Third, Washington cannot regulate community colleges to success. Fourth, the combination of tuition caps and direct public funding could actually lead to rationing. Finally, a free public option would stifle innovation and competition.

Although discussing community colleges, Kelly zeros in on a flaw with Clinton’s expectation that by targeting federal aid directly to state schools, Washington can demand changes and accountability:

These best-laid plans sound good, but they dramatically overestimate the federal government’s ability to fix colleges. As Rick Hess reminds us, while federal rules can tell people to do something, they cannot force them to do it well.

You’d expect the recent experience with K?12 School Improvement Grants (SIG) to raise red flags about the feds’ ability to fix troubled schools with more money and mandates. The SIG program has provided more than $5 billion in federal grants to 2,000 of the country’s lowest-performing schools while requiring them to choose one of four “turnaround” models. The results have not been encouraging. While about two-thirds of SIG schools did register modest gains in reading and math, scores at one-third actually declined over the period…

Free tuition at community college or state colleges and universities are the same. They make big promises, but fail to significantly improve the educational opportunities of young people. There’s more to the story of a student’s success than the fees for enrollment and those are not addressed by more funding. Choice and innovation provide the freedom for a young person to find the best school for them. Family, community, and academic readiness also contribute to a student’s performance.

Furthermore, making these institutions tuition-free will inevitably attract more students for the limited number of seats available which will force the institutions to be more selective in the short run potentially leaving some students behind. In the long run, to accommodate more students, schools would have to expand their facilities and staff. The costs would be borne by taxpayers.

School choice is needed not just at the K-12 level, but for higher education too.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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