Op-ed: We don't need 'free college.' We need better retention, employment rates

Colleges need more incentives to help students graduate and pursue lucrative careers

The push for free college has been a popular talking point among presidential candidates, but new data from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research suggests that free college is not the solution to poor retention and high unemployment rates—and may even exacerbate these issues.   

According to the report, only 52% of students who enroll in college graduate within six years. Among that group, 44% hold jobs that require less education than they have.

"Bernie Sanders wants to make tuition free at public colleges, and universities and Hillary Clinton wants to make community college free," says Preston Cooper, policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute and author of the research. "I'm not confident these free college proposals are going to address the central problem of low graduation rates or high unemployment rates."

Cooper argues that colleges are more concerned about getting students graduated than with ensuring students are successful in their careers and lives after college. Without sufficient guidance, students continue to choose degrees that are unlikely to lead to lucrative careers. 

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While many students are burdened with loan debt that may prevent them from pursuing higher-paying jobs, Cooper believes that lowering the cost of a college education will drive up taxes. While he agrees that more students are likely to enroll in college if it is available at no cost, he argues that many students will continue to drop out.

Cooper also points out that neither proposal for "free" or "debt-free" college gives schools with poor retention rates an incentive to change. 

"Flooding the system with more federal subsidies will considerably worsen, not improve the situation," Cooper says.

He favors solutions such as making colleges more accountable for some of students' loan debt, which would give them an incentive to help students graduate and pursue degrees with high earning potential. Cooper also suggests more options for private investors to finance students' education in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings, as well as reforming how student loans are dispersed (Fuscaldo, GoodCall, 3/14). 

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