STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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The potential costs of a tuition-free college plan

College Student
CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

College is expensive.

The national average cost of attending a four-year public college is over $28,000 per year, according to Forbes. The cost of attending a four-year private college is more than twice as much.

And the price of college tuition is still going up.

The concept of free community college has gained momentum over the past decade. In 2005, Kalamazoo, Michigan schools implemented the nation’s first promise scholarship program – the Kalamazoo Promise.

Since then, other cities around the country have implemented similar scholarship programs, which cover in-state public tuition for students who graduate from local public high schools.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has proposed a plan to offer free college tuition to millions of families. The proposal would offer free tuition at public schools to students in families earning $85,000 a year or less, at first, with that threshold increasing to $125,000 by 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The plan would ideally make higher education more accessible to low-income and minority students. But it could actually have the opposite effect, according to Ronald Brownstein at The Atlantic:

Without the proper safeguards, such a program might still, paradoxically, narrow access. If tuition is eliminated at public universities for families with income up to $125,000, as Clinton has proposed, more upper- middle-class students who now attend private schools may decide that Austin, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley are better bargains — and intensify competition for the limited slots available there.

The increased competition for spaces at public institutions could channel minorities and low-income students toward the least selective open admission and two-year colleges. These institutions have the fewest resources to invest in the students who need them.

Richard Kahlenberg is with The Century Foundation. He told The Atlantic:

Tuition-free college wouldn’t address the principal reasons the top public schools don’t admit more applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds: their fear of falling in national college rankings if they accept students with lower test scores, and their reluctance to invest in the extra support often required to help such students succeed. That’s money not spent on reducing class sizes or other things that would increase your national rankings.

So if eliminating public tuition alone isn't the solution, what is? According to Brownstein:

Clinton is aware of these risks, and says if elected, she would design the tuition-free proposal to require states to enhance racial and class diversity at their public universities. But devising policies to achieve that goal, especially with the Supreme Court’s limits on affirmative action, isn’t easy. One key may be building more capacity at public universities: that way if a tuition-free policy draws more young people to choose that option, they aren’t just jostling for the existing spaces. Eliminating tuition at public colleges could be a powerful means of expanding opportunity—and equipping an increasingly diverse America to compete in the global economy. But only if Washington and the states ensure that these new investments don’t merely reinforce old privileges.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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