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Is "free college" the best option for low-income students?

Sep 9, 2015

Cassandra Payne is studying to become a dental assistant at Washtenaw Community College, but eventually hopes to transfer into the Dentistry program at UMICH to become a hygienist
Credit Adam Allington / Michigan Radio

Democrats on the presidential campaign trail are pitching their college affordability plans to voters. And they’re (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley) largely united in their calls for debt-free higher education.

The plans being discussed mirror President Obama’s call for free community college earlier this year.

Free tuition would be welcome news to any student or parent. But it’s also worth considering whether those plans would direct scarce federal resources to students who need them most.

Cassandra Payne came by her interest in dentistry the hard way. When she was still a toddler she took a spill out of a high-chair and smashed a front tooth forward.

“So, by the time I was 14 and entering high school I was fortunate to get braces and I saw what it did for me and I liked it a lot,” Payne recalls. “And I thought being an orthodontist is cool because you can fix somebody’s smile and a smile is a first impression so I thought that was important.”

Payne is a student at Washtenaw Community College, studying to become a dental assistant.

She has cut costs everywhere she can, but still has to take out loans every semester to pay for tuition and other costs like books, and health insurance, which her program requires.

“I live at home, with my mom, and I work at Kroger as a meat clerk, but I only get paid $8.50 an hour and only working a few days … the check is nothing,” Payne says.

Payne expects to graduate carrying about $20,000 to $30,000 in student loans.

But while student loan debt continues to grab headlines, many education experts point out that the funding for higher education has to come from somewhere.

“It does require resources to educate people, somebody has to pay for it, and the question is, who is going to pay for it? How is that responsibility going to be divided?” says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. She helped advise the Clinton campaign on its college plan.

Baum says the politics of supporting low-income students aren’t always an easy sell, which is why middle-class voters need to have some skin in the game as well.

“We certainly want them to direct the largest subsidies to the people who need them the most, not to people who can afford to pay anyway and are going to college anyway.  That said, middle-income people are struggling with paying for college and you can’t leave them out of proposals.”

Baum says some kind of sliding policy where families pay only what they can reasonably afford would be the best option.

The cost of tuition likely isn’t the only obstacle keeping low-income students from college.

“While low-income students attend community college in greater numbers than wealthier students, fewer low-income students are completing a credential,” says Jennifer Cleary, a senior researcher at the Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers.

She says the percentage of students from low-income households who complete community college is about 15-17% and roughly half that for those who go on to get a B.A.

“If these free-college plans really are going to be a benefit, to low-income students in particular, and help people move up the income ladder, and begin to address inequality, those things at a minimum need to be addressed,” Cleary says.

Cleary says low-income students also need extra support with everything from academics and counseling, to help navigating the maze of financial aid forms.

But, Cassandra Payne – the dental assistant student – says removing the burden of all those tuition bills would be a weight off her mind.

“I think it would mean that I would be able to live instead of just trying to survive,” Payne says.

Payne hopes to eventually transfer into the dental program at the University of Michigan to complete a B.A. as a dental hygienist. As hard as it’s been, she’s still more confident than ever she’s doing the right thing.

“Especially, if you like something a lot, no matter what is going on in your life, you’ll still want to do it. That’s me. I’m not a quitter and I like what I am doing and I want to make it a career, so quitting wasn’t an option.”

Payne has started a GoFundMe page to raise what money she can to pay for books and other school costs.

If she can eventually land a job as a hygienist, which typically pays north of $60,000 per year, she says the struggle will be worth every penny.