A Values Proposition for Free College Policies

December 18, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

Against the backdrop of a $1.6 trillion student debt crisis and declining college enrollment, free college has emerged as a political lightning rod in today’s higher education debate. Questions about who should and will benefit⁠—and what “free” even means⁠—have created a free-for-whom free-for-all, with proposals varying both by student and institutional access.

To evaluate these policies, and the profound impact they’re likely to have on racial and wealth inequality and economic and democratic access, we need a values framework.

In a new report, Suzanne Kahn, deputy director of the Great Democracy Initiative and a Roosevelt program manager, provides that roadmap, suggesting six policy design questions any proposal should contemplate—including what counts as free and who pays. Drawing on the lessons of precedents around the world, throughout the nation, and across party lines, she also offers potential answers and outcomes. In a second report, Kahn explores what we can learn from the current landscape of American public good provision—including from programs like Medicaid and Medicare—and how we can adapt existing solutions to higher education.

These reports provide instructive and practical models for any free college plan, but they also seek to instill in the policymaking process a moral compass to answer some of the thornier questions facing progressives in 2020 and beyond.

Is it regressive to relieve the tuition burdens of high- and low-income students in the same ways? Are all Americans entitled to higher education by right? And, if they are, what level of education or institutional type fulfills that natural right? Technical college? Community college? Four-year public college?

We can’t answer these questions without examining our bedrock values and conceptions of rights and access. For example, if we consider higher education a requisite for economic success, we might define universal access as a right rather than a privilege.

As Kahn explains, a goal of universal access necessitates meaningful access: “That means having a public system that offers educational opportunities of adequate quality—and also one that creates the conditions for students to be able to attend and succeed,” she writes. “For example, offering tuition-free access only to the lowest-quality institutions in a public system would be, strictly speaking, ‘universal access,’ but it would not be meaningful.”

Visions for free college vary wildly, and as Kahn’s reports show, their diversity in scope and access mirrors that of existing precedents both within higher education and in other policy realms. In choosing or melding any of these proposals, we must define and prioritize our morals. Without thoughtful policy design, undergirded by coherent and consistent values, there’s no guarantee that a free college plan will achieve what it can and should: universal, meaningful access to higher education.