How 'free college' might affect higher ed

Some institutions may see recruitment challenges

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's proposal to eliminate college tuition for many students could have negative consequences for higher education, Scott Carlson and Beckie Supiano write for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Under the proposal, students from families with annual incomes under $125,000—more than 80% of families currently sending students to college—would be able to attend public institutions in their home state at no tuition cost.

Clinton's campaign says that she would enact the plan through executive action if she were elected president. The policy would take effect gradually: initially, only students from families with annual incomes under $85,000 would qualify for free tuition, and the cap would gradually increase until hitting $125,000 in 2021.

Learn more about Hillary Clinton's plan

While the plan sounds innovative, Carlson and Supiano bring up several concerns about Clinton's vision for free college:

Private institutions may suffer

Many experts fear that under Clinton's plan, small, remote institutions with modest endowments would be hit the hardest.

Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, explains that these colleges are mostly in rural parts of the Midwest and Northeast, where populations of high school students have remained mostly unchanged. These students also tend to be minority or first-generation students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of them may opt for more affordable public colleges—putting a sudden recruitment crunch on small, private colleges.

Clinton's plan does not make clear whether students at private institutions would be eligible for federal grants and loans. However, Kent John Chabotar, a former president of Guilford College, says that should public colleges become free for lower-income students, small private colleges would be forced to compete for students who are less prepared and have lower expected family contributions.

Public institutions may be overwhelmed

If more students turn to public colleges, these institutions may not be equipped to handle the influx of students. As it stands, public two- and four-year institutions enroll more than 75% of U.S. undergraduates. It is unlikely that government funding will be sufficient to keep up with the increased demand.

Flagship universities, which generally enroll higher-income students, would have little incentive to enroll more students. That could lead to increased competition at flagships, while lower-income students would be crowded into regional institutions. 

Flagships' recruiting practices are 'narrowing' public access to higher ed, expert says

Clinton's proposal did not specify how much tuition would cost for out-of-state students or those whose families have annual incomes of $125,000 or more. If the policy were applicable to out-of-state students, flagships would lose out on an additional source of revenue. If it were only applicable to out-of-state students whose family incomes are below $125,000, it would be more difficult for those students to attend college in-state for free, according to Robert Toutkoushian, a professor in the institute of higher education at the University of Georgia.

Better student outcomes would not be guaranteed

Because Clinton's plan would gradually increase the income limit at which students are eligible for free college, some families may postpone sending their children to college until they are covered. And they would still likely have to borrow money to finance their children's education.

Not only that, but some fear that Clinton's proposal does not account for the non-financial barriers that keep people from pursuing a college education.  

How to finish in four: Supporting on-time graduation for low-income students

College towns could take a hit

If students end up flocking to public institutions, private colleges, and their surrounding towns, may see damage to their local economies.

"If you take 45 percent of our population, and you allow them to go to Purdue [University] or Indiana University or any of the state schools in Indiana for free, more than likely they are not going to be coming here," says Robert Pastoor, president of St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana.

Even though St. Joseph's is not the largest employer in Rensselaer, it does drive the local economy. The college depends on the students, parents, and alumni who spend at local businesses.  

At Cornell College, which is Mount Vernon, Iowa's biggest employer, the public can take advantage of the school's theater productions, knitting circles, movie nights, and more. Without the college, the entire community would be at a loss, says Cornell President Jonathan Brand (Carlson/Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/27). 

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