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Education | States race to implement free college programs, sticking taxpayers with the rising tuition bills
by Leigh Jones
Posted 4/04/18, 01:42 pm

A new analysis by The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank, shows 16 states now have at least one so-called “college promise” program offering free tuition to eligible students. Half of these programs launched in 2017, illustrating the growing popularity of the free degree.

The foundation’s report notes two main justifications for the free tuition programs: a desire to address concerns over the rising cost of college and the corresponding levels of student debt and a push to encourage enrollment among students who might not think they can afford it.

But will shifting the tuition burden from students to the state really make college more affordable?

Preston Cooper, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, says no. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Cooper noted tuition bills at public universities have grown during the last five years even as state funding has increased. Inflation-adjusted state funding grew from $6,525 to $7,642 per student—an increase of $1,117. Net tuition revenue rose from $5,733 to $6,572 during those same years—an increase of $839.

“Public colleges are getting more money from taxpayers, but students have seen no relief from tuition increases,” Cooper wrote. “Policymakers may need to address the underlying costs of colleges—not just where their funding comes from—in order to rein in tuition hikes.”

But that would be difficult, unpopular work, and few lawmakers seem interested in taking on the challenge.

Most current free degree programs focus on community college. Only New York offers free tuition at four-year institutions. But given the growing popularity of the “free degree,” it seems likely others will soon follow suit. And it won’t necessarily be left-leaning states that adopt New York’s model. Several states that led the way with free community college, including Tennessee, are Republican strongholds.

As I’ve noted in Schooled before, evidence from other countries that have long had free college programs shows students are less motivated to graduate on time and more likely to drop out when they don’t have any skin in the game. Several European nations, including England, opted to start charging something for college to improve outcomes. So why is the United States moving in the opposite direction?

Political expediency.

Rising college costs are a legitimate problem, fueled in part by government-subsidized loans. If students had less money to spend on school and fewer students attempted to get a degree, public universities eventually would respond to the pressure of empty seats and tighten their belts to lower tuition. But taking away those subsidies and making college more expensive, at least in the short term, doesn’t make for a rousing political campaign slogan. (No one will chant, “Charge us more! Charge us more!”)

Instead, politicians opt for the wide road: Spread the pain so no one feels it too much. If taxpayers pick up the tab, university administrators don’t have to worry about cutting costs. And students don’t have to worry about racking up insurmountable debt. It seems like a win-win, except that the underlying problem of rising tuition costs rages on.

Associated Press/Photo by Nate Billings/The Oklahoman Associated Press/Photo by Nate Billings/The Oklahoman Teachers and supporters pack the Oklahoma state Capitol on Tuesday.

Lessons in applied pressure

Speaking of raging on, teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky rallied at their respective statehouses this week to demand higher pay, more education spending, and higher pension payments. Arizona educators could be next in line for a widespread walkout.

All this striking started in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent raise after closing classrooms for nine days. Teachers unions are encouraging the activism, but conservative analysts note the unions are part of the problem.

Unions dig deep into teachers’ pockets. Dues can be as much as $600 to $1,000 a year. That’s a lot for a teacher who must take a second (or third, or fourth!) job just to make ends meet. Where do all those dues go? In part to pay some pretty fat salaries for union officials. In West Virginia, where teachers make about $46,000, employees at the West Virginia Education Association make close to six figures.

Pensions, at the crux of the educator anger in Kentucky, also stake a large claim to overall education funding. One analysis shows pension costs have more than doubled in the last decade. Dividing the pension costs per pupil helps illustrate the toll those payments take on the education system as a whole. In 2004, the per-pupil pension cost sat at about $500. By 2015, it had risen to about $1,050. The pension costs amounted to 4.8 percent of overall education spending in 2004, compared to 8.9 percent in 2015.

Relatively modest pay increases might help teachers in the short term, but they won’t vent the pressure building in chronically underfunded pension plans. They also won’t encourage union leaders to take a smaller piece of the pie. Until teachers and lawmakers work together to solve those problems, educators will continue to feel the paycheck pinch. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Joseph Reedy Associated Press/Photo by Joseph Reedy Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house, where a pledge died of alcohol poisoning in 2017, near Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida State Greek groups OK to party on

The outrage over excessive drinking and hazing at fraternities and sororities seems to have faded in the several months since the last alcohol-related death. Florida State University announced last week it would lift its ban on alcohol and social gatherings for Greek organizations, following similar moves at Penn State University, Louisiana State University, and Texas State University. Students died of alcohol-related injuries at all four schools, a string of incidents that prompted outrage across the country. Florida State President John Thrasher said that while groups on his campus can hold parties again, they need to change their behavior if they hope to survive: “We’re on the precipice of losing the Greek system if this type of hazing keeps happening. I want to save the Greek system. When you have four of these events happen nationwide in one year, it is significant.” —L.J.

Harvard bids farewell to the Puritans

Faculty and students at Harvard will no longer sing an ode to their Puritan founders after a diversity task force struck references to the university’s religious foundation from the official school song. The anthem, “Fair Harvard,” used to end with the line, “Be the herald of light, and the bearer of love, till the stock of the Puritans die.” Administrators decided that inaccurately tied the school to “ethnic lineage and to the rise and fall of racial groupings.” The new version will end with, “… till the stars in the firmament die,” one of 168 suggestions sent by students, faculty, and alumni. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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