Many candidates running on ‘free college,’ but critics point to mixed results

Signaling that free-college programs could be moving into the mainstream, “more candidates than ever” are running on college-affordability proposals this election cycle, Inside Higher Ed reports. A number of congressional candidates and 10 Democratic gubernatorial candidates—including Ben Jealous (Maryland), Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), David Garcia (Arizona), and Ned Lamont (Connecticut)—have put forth free-college plans.

The proposals vary: Lamont, for instance, wants to make the first two years of college free at public institutions, while Jealous says he’ll make four-year college debt-free and community college free. Whitmer is pitching a debt-free program in which qualified students would complete community service and participate in a mentoring program. Jess King, a Democrat running for Congress in Pennsylvania, has suggested eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities by taxing Wall Street and implementing federal matching funds to keep students’ cost of attendance below what they can earn working at minimum wage 10 hours per week.

Most proposals emerging at the local, state levels

Inside Higher Ed notes that while free college has emerged as “a winning idea” among many progressive candidates and even some moderate Democrats this election cycle, the Democratic party is not pushing free college at the national level. Rather, the proposals are concentrated at the local and state levels, and the Democratic party is “letting candidates themselves emphasize the issues important to voters in their districts.”

What’s the best model?

The attention on college affordability also has sparked debate about the best way to approach free-college programs, given their expense and complexity. Two recent reports, for instance, took a close look at “last-dollar” tuition-free college programs implemented by Tennessee and New York, suggesting that the model fails to meet the needs of low-income students. Advocates of free college, however, challenged that conclusion, saying that the researchers took a narrow view of equity and overlooked key benefits of free-college efforts.

Brian Sponsler, vice president of policy and director of postsecondary and workforce development at the Education Commission on the States, told Inside Higher Ed that he expects these “last-dollar” models to remain center-stage, especially given that “the energy and interest [in free college]…is not crystallizing itself into new resources” or state aid.

Politics and state finances do “play a role in shaping these programs,” Inside Higher Ed writes, pointing to New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy campaigned last year on tuition-free community college but has scaled back implementation after receiving limited funding from the state legislature.

Given these complexities, some observers doubt whether momentum at the local and state levels will translate to action at the federal level anytime soon. Still, college-affordability advocates say the activity and dialogue around free college proposals are victories in their own right.

“The political conversation is finally catching up to where the voting population is on this issue,” Maggie Thompson, executive director of the Center for American Progress’s youth engagement arm, told Inside Higher Ed.

“We’re certainly not purists on this,” adds Heather Gautney, executive director of the progressive organization Our Revolution. “The ideal here is to view higher education as a public good in America—to make sure that everyone who desires to attend an institution of higher education can without walking away with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.”

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