Michael B.Horn: 'Free' college a crazy way to attack cost crisis, launch America's kids on path to success

Four years after President Obama proposed making community college tuition-free, free college proposals are all the rage among the Democratic presidential candidates. From Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s, D-Mass., plan to Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt., nearly every candidate boasts some version of a free college proposal.

The logic is as alluring as it is faulty. Free college would ultimately curtail students’ ability to make the right choices for themselves, by crowding out the emerging innovative options most likely to make a difference in their lives.

The argument in support of free college goes something like this: College costs a lot, and far too many cannot afford those costs. Completing college has significant benefits for individuals in the form of a 14 percent return on investment and, theoretically, for society in terms of more skilled and knowledgeable individuals.


Therefore, advocates say, free college would automatically benefit students and society in the same way that extending high schools from the domain of the elite few – only one-third of children in the United States who enrolled in the first grade made it to high school in 1905 – to publicly funded settings for all did.

Although the analogy is tempting, following its logic would stunt the kind of innovations in higher education we need to bolster the nation and the livelihood of millions.

Although college is more expensive than ever, the answer is not to allow individuals to afford a costly, subpar education, but to make a valuable education cheaper and more accessible.

Free college would not solve our problems because many students who attend college do not finish. Forty percent of first-time, full-time students fail to graduate from four-year programs within six years. The rate is worse at two-year colleges, where only 39 percent of students complete. Eighty percent entering community colleges expect to transfer and earn a Bachelor’s, but just 29 percent do within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Yes, financial hardship is one of the reasons students leave school. But it is not just tuition – which is what most free college plans address –driving students’ financial challenges. If that were the case, we would expect to see far more success at low-priced community colleges where tuition is already covered completely for low-income students by the federal government’s Pell Grants.

According to executives at ReUp Education, a company that helps re-enroll students who have dropped out and then supports them through graduation, factors like life balance, professional commitments, health, lack of satisfaction with one’s school and academics all play significant roles in students dropping out as well.

A challenge is that colleges were never designed with the supports, flexibilities and instructionally sound teaching and learning practices that many students need to succeed. Some faculty members continue to view their teaching roles as sorting students out based on who cannot succeed academically, rather than supporting students through a course and viewing success as being how far they can take students regardless of academic preparation.

Doubling down by scaling existing colleges and universities that have flawed structures for the needs of today’s students through free college policies does not make sense.

A second reason free college isn’t the answer is that it does nothing to contain the true source of rising costs, which someone has to pay. Tuition has soared because traditional colleges lack economies of scale and have complex operational models that have led to significant cost increases. The pressure for costs to continue to rise in the traditional model is unrelenting.

Although college is more expensive than ever, the answer is not to allow individuals to afford a costly, subpar education, but to make a valuable education cheaper and more accessible.

The way to do that isn’t by bending the cost curve of traditional programs, but by unleashing the power of disruptive innovation, which is just emerging in higher education in the form of faster and less expensive last-mile training and on-ramp providers, coding bootcamps, online programs and more.

These disruptive programs are at odds with the nation’s historical strategy of making higher education accessible through massive spending to subsidize its cost. Continuing this strategy by writing a blank check will only slow the adoption of promising disruptive postsecondary programs like Western Governors University and Duet, as it will mask the full cost of traditional programs.

For example, although tuition at community colleges averages $3,347, the average spending per full-time student at a community college was $13,215 in 2016. Hiding these costs allows students to follow the conventional wisdom of going to college rather than seeking the most educational value for their time and money.

Instead, we need to support students by fostering a range of choices, from faster and cheaper options like Kenzie Academy and Lambda School to traditional colleges. In research for my forthcoming book, "Choosing College," my co-author and I found that too many students in the more than 200 stories we documented chose college because it just felt like the logical choice that society expected them to make, rather than making a choice consistent with their circumstances and goals. A whopping 74 percent dropped out or transferred.


Policymakers could play a productive role by supporting policies that move beyond debt by clarifying the legality and adding consumer protection clauses around income share agreements that protect students from bad returns on investment, creating lifetime education savings accounts that empower individuals to make choices and avoiding cementing the stranglehold of traditional college in American society.

College will continue to be a viable option at different times in people’s lives. But privileging that choice by making it free is the wrong way to tackle the college cost crisis and improve students’ pathways to productivity and self-fulfillment.