Why Free College Isn’t Enough

Graduation cap next to a jar of money

Eileen L. Strempel, UCLA

Stephen J. Handel, College Board

Eileen Strempel and Stephen Handel are authors of a book released in 2021 titled Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students. In their book, Eileen and Stephen share a compelling case that post-secondary degree or certificate is essential to participation in our American democracy and economy.

In their recently released book Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students, Eileen Strempel and Stephen Handel shift the conversation from college access to degree completion, and make a compelling case that a post-secondary degree or certificate is essential to participation in our American democracy and economy. Focusing on today’s transfer students at a time when 36 million Americans have earned some college credits but no degree, Strempel and Handel introduce us to the plight of the neo-traditional student—27% of whom are also parents. Drawing upon extensive research, the authors offer a strategic guide to the policies that deliver the best return on investment in rebuilding the American economy post-pandemic, both in terms of national public policy and for college leaders seeking action steps for their campus. At a time when free college has gained remarkable popularity, Beyond Free College delivers a more nuanced approach that addresses the root causes and cures for the impediments to degree completion for today’s neo-traditional students.

“Free College” discussions are in heavy news rotation these days with President Biden’s “American Families Plan” legislative proposal, which includes significant investment in community college infrastructure along with a proposal to make these two-year colleges free of tuition. It is a progressive and ambitious plan designed to ensure that many more students have access to higher education, especially those from underserved groups. Yet, however admirable the President’s intentions—along with those inherent in the free college plans proposed in a number of states—this proposal focuses resources on an imaginary problem. In the United States, almost anyone can attend college. Community colleges, for example, have no admission requirements, and, with Pell funding, tuition and fees are covered for our neediest students.

The much bigger problem is that millions of Americans never earn a college certificate or degree. Currently, over 36 million Americans possess some college credit but no degree. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the distribution of these former students varies widely by state, and ranges from 5% to a high of 15% of all students with postsecondary enrollment. Although the United States has one of the highest rates of college participation in the world, our degree completion rate is among the lowest; only about 6 in 10 of college students leave college with a certificate or degree. Although heartening and progressive, the President’s plan does not provide students with the kinds of additional supports they need so that they can study hard, persist, and actually earn the degree they want and need.

The lifelong benefits to completing a degree are huge. A college graduate is much more likely to have a job with a higher salary, and thus is likely to pay higher taxes. Graduates are much less likely to require social services. They’re also much more likely to be law-abiding and engaged citizens. And the benefits extend into the next generation, because when graduates have kids, they are much more likely to attend—and graduate—college themselves.

If degrees are so important to individual well-being, why aren’t more students earning them? What can policymakers and practitioners provide that might boost the college completion rate? Actually, the research is clear about what students need in order to finish a college degree or certificate. Later in this article, we will briefly discuss these wrap-around services, but it is unlikely that you will be surprised by them. What students need to be productive are the same things all of us needed when we were in college–things like resources to cover transportation and childcare and student-centered policies that grant college credit for prior learning, and that incorporate curricular options to ensure “no credit is left behind.” Although what we propose is not new—our book highlights a collection of colleges and universities engaged in these productive efforts—it is potentially transformative for students and the nation. Our goal is to bring this extraordinary work to scale, by investing wisely as a nation in ways that will allow many more students to leave college with a degree or certificate that allows them to earn a family-sustaining wage.

As a country, we’re not yet focused on measuring the cost of the outcome we desire, which is the college degree that prepares our students to compete effectively for jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage. And the only way to do this is to rigorously measure the total cost-per-degree awarded. How else will we assure our investments as taxpayers are paying off in the outcome we’re seeking? What successful organization doesn’t focus on the total cost of their completed service, and then seek to maximize the most effective and efficient process to get there?

If we invest wisely, the payoffs for our country and our citizens are enormous. Although the upfront costs for what we propose are indeed substantial, the shocking result is that the cost-per-degree is lower. Actually, much lower, because the degree completion rate rises dramatically. In addition, the return on investment to the American taxpayer results in a windfall in higher taxes and lower lifetime expenditures on social services. Studies demonstrate this ROI as being in the range of 4:1 to 5:1, a rate of return that should speak compellingly across the political aisle. It’s notable that this rate of return doesn’t even begin to compute the benefits to subsequent generations, with college graduates’ children now much more likely to also complete their degree.

To those who might balk at these larger upfront costs, it might be useful to remember that we’ve done this before with the G.I. Bill. Yes, these are ambitious strategies to propose. Yet our nation has proven, inspirational experience in placing big bets on higher education to ensure American prosperity. Our country is now coming back from a war with a pandemic, and just like at the end of WW2, strategic investments in education will foster dramatic national prosperity. When our service men and women returned from WWII, we made an important investment. Just like the “free college” proposal put forth by Biden, the G.I. Bill covered your tuition costs. In addition, however, it also provided students with vital funding that covered the expenses of housing, food, and books, and at a sufficient funding level that childcare was included (as was expected at the time) by a “stay at home” mom. We need similar support today to assure the students who enroll actually “get what they came for” and graduate with a college degree, which is still the ticket to the middle class.

So, while we hope for a national policy solution that results in re-investment focused on completion, not merely access, what should college leaders do on their campuses to enact positive change? What did we learn other than “Free College” isn’t enough? How might campus leaders most effectively direct their energy and investments in arenas under their control and purview?

To this end, we recommend that college and university leaders:

  • Incentivize the use of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)
  • Embrace online learning that addressed the needs of neo-traditional students
  • Address the place-based support needs of students
  • Redesign the curriculum
  • Serve students with children

Incentivize the use of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)

In the twenty-first century, transfer now encompasses a lifetime of learning from a variety of sources. Academic credit should be awarded for demonstrable and documented learning outside of the classroom, both for traditional students and for today’s neo-traditional students. Via internships, we’ve already found an academically rigorous way to award academic credit for workplace learning for our traditional students. Indeed, many students and families see these rich workplace experiences as a valuable pathway to a career post-college. To be equitable, more institutions must embrace prior learn assessment in order to utilize similarly rigorous means for awarding credit for learning outside of the classroom, whether from the military, homeschooling, volunteer work, or job experiences. If we’ve embraced internships for our traditional students, why not implement a PLA policy and practice for the workplace-based learning of our neo-traditional students? Research demonstrates that awarding nine academic credits for learning earned outside of the classroom results in graduation rates that are two-and-a-half times higher. Despite our own initial skepticism, the research is so compelling that we urge a comprehensive implementation of PLA on every college campus. And because students retain and graduate with their degree at such dramatically higher levels, institutions also benefit substantially, because campuses earn more tuition revenue.

Embrace Online Learning that Addresses the Needs of Neo-Traditional Students

Especially after the past year and half, it’s clear that online education is here to stay. Online access is an important lever for addressing the pernicious effects of education deserts. But we need to honest: simply moving a place-based class to Zoom isn’t enough. As institutions pursue online learning, and as they also need to embrace the powerful enhancement of AI (artificial intelligence), the research demonstrates the powerful benefits to learning for all students, both in decreased DFW rates (receiving a D, F or Withdraw for a course) and in course grades. We also believe these AI-enhanced courses should be supplemented with place-based supports for tutoring and advising, whether located on the traditional campus, or in community or workplace locations that might better address the academic and life challenges students face. It’s the combination of “high-tech/high touch” that works to assure degree completion.

Address the Place-Based Support Needs of Your Students

Connect your students, especially your parent students, to comprehensive place-based support. CUNY’s Single Stop College Initiative is a template for how your institution can connect students to the federal, state, and local benefits they are eligible to receive, facilitating access to SNAP, food pantries, health care enrollment, tax assistance, and child care placement assistance. We understand individual institutions can’t do it all, but intentionality around connecting students to the resources available to them pays off—both for individuals and for the institutions that serve them. Many students aren’t aware of the benefits available or how to navigate the administrative labyrinth to successfully access them, so cross-training academic advisors about how to provide this connective assistance can be transformative.

Redesign Your Curriculum

To meet the needs of neo-traditional students, institutions should consider a broad and sweeping curricular redesign that emulates the success of Brigham Young University’s Pathway Connect. The most powerful and replicable aspect of their redesign centers on curricula that begin post-secondary education with labor/industry-valued credentials first, so that by design, no credit is left behind, and all students leave with an income-enhancing credential, even if they don’t initially remain to receive a bachelor’s degree. Academic credit starts with the certificate program, and then builds into an Associate’s degree, which then folds into the Bachelor’s degree. Brigham Young’s retention and graduation data clearly indicate that this flipped-model curricular innovation results in powerful gains for the most at-risk students. It also improves student job prospects and earning potential from the very start and helps to avoid the miserable combination of earning some college credit, accumulating debt, and yet failing to earn a transformative certificate or degree.

Serve Students With Children

In America today, 27% of all students enrolled in higher education are “parent-students.” In community colleges, roughly one out of every three students support a family. The fact that growing numbers of our nation’s students are also parents underscores the foundational need to provide childcare subsidies for them—along with other wraparound supports. It’s straightforward: If you can’t find childcare, you stay with your child and you miss class (hence the term “parent” comes before “student”). The seemingly impossible challenge of being able to find—and pay for–quality, affordable childcare makes it much less likely that you complete a college course, let alone a college degree. Recent reports clarify the formidable challenge of simultaneously navigating both schoolwork and parenthood; although student parents academically succeed in the classroom, they are ten times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who don’t have children.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes, amid the arid discussions around policymaking, there is a danger of losing our focus on the people we are trying to serve. As you contemplate your rationale and the strategic approach for your campus in advancing college completion, keep in mind the needs of those students who are most in need of your support. Just as we helped the GIs returning from WW2, we need to help those emerging from our war with a pandemic. Now is the time to invest in higher education—wisely, rigorously, and sharply focused on degree completion.

Portrait of Eileen L. Strempel
Portrait of Stephen J. Handel

Eileen L. Strempel is the Inaugural Dean of The Herb Alpert School of Music, as well as a Professor of Education in the School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. Stephen J. Handel is a senior strategist with the College Board. They are the co-authors of the recently released, Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students.