New US free college plans show pitfalls of local options

Cornell, New Mexico and Morehouse schemes highlight importance of debate at federal level, say experts

September 26, 2019
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While aspiring US presidential candidates debate the free college plans they would pursue if elected, the list of institutions and states moving to directly implement such programmes is expanding.

In just the past week, Cornell University promised to cover all costs for students at its medical school in New York City, a wealthy benefactor expanded his debt-free gift to graduates of historically black Morehouse College, and New Mexico’s governor proposed a statewide free college plan.

The enthusiasm represents a welcome response to a clear need, several experts said. Nevertheless, they warned, such individual initiatives, even if replicated in many more places, cannot possibly hope to plug the hole that federal policymakers will still face after next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

“You’re not going to have individual institutional actions fully close the gap left by insufficient policy action,” said Ben Miller, the vice-president for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a public policy research group.

At Cornell, private donations of more than $200 million (£160 million) are expected to keep the medical school tuition-free for more than 370 students a year.

At Morehouse, billionaire Robert F. Smith, having promised in May to cover the debt of its nearly 400 graduates, announced plans to also include costs incurred by their families, for a total gift of about $34 million.

And in New Mexico, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, proposed making all its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, at an estimated cost of some $30 million a year for 55,000 students.

One major problem that none of the three plans tackles, but which is becoming a growing focus of Democratic presidential candidates seeking to replace Donald Trump, is the nation’s existing accumulation of college student debt, estimated at $1.6 trillion.

Many of the leading Democratic candidates have outlined some plan to make college free, or debt free, for future students. Fewer, so far at least, have set out specific plans to help the tens of millions of former students still struggling to repay loans, Mr Miller said.

Schemes at individual institutions raise questions of equity and social objectives beyond the affected campuses.

Big-name medical schools win donors, said Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, partly because donors are spurred by their own personal concerns or desire for recognition rather than by an informed view of what action is most needed. “They give it partly because they want to give it to the prestigious places,” he said.

Another potential pitfall of such donations, said Sandro Galea, the dean of public health at Boston University, is that the money creates even more intense competition for admission to places such as Cornell. That, he said, runs the risk of deterring students from less-traditional backgrounds – those most likely to return to work in areas under-served in terms of medical provision.

Governor Lujan Grisham’s plan for New Mexico, by making all state residents eligible regardless of family income, also raises potential equity concerns, Mr Miller said. But that seems to be less of an issue in a place such as New Mexico, with relatively few numbers of extremely wealthy residents, than it is in many other states, he added.

The universality of the governor’s proposal, Mr Miller said, therefore could prove beneficial in ensuring a broader base of public support as she seeks its approval by the state legislature.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: US free college plans grow, but local moves could leave holes nationwide

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