The Pitfalls of Free Tuition

Bernie Sanders’s idea has made its way into Hillary Clinton’s education plan, but private schools are pushing back.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Bernie Sanders may be out as a presidential contender, but his proposal to make public college free has worked its way into Hillary Clinton’s education plan. While the plan is making some private colleges nervous, his campaign has succeeded in furthering a broader conversation among university admissions directors about how to make access to higher education more equitable.

The applicant pools at selective universities don’t typically reflect the broader population, acknowledged Jim Rawlins, the director of admissions and assistant vice president of enrollment management at the University of Oregon, during a recent roundtable discussion with a handful of other admissions leaders in Washington, D.C. The different schools in attendance—both public and private, small and large—agreed that needs to change.

But not all schools are convinced that making in-state public schools free for students from families earning less than $125,000 a year by 2021, the gist of Clinton’s plan, is the right approach. Monica Inzer, the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College, a small private school in rural upstate New York, expressed concern that if such a proposal were to become a reality, some families might not look at private schools that could be a good fit and equally affordable.

As Jim Nondorf, the vice president for enrollment and student advancement and dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago, said, students often hear a sticker price and don’t realize the actual cost for low- and even middle-income kids may not be as steep. His school, for instance, offers need-blind admission and promises to meet 100 percent of a family’s demonstrated need. Hamilton eliminated merit aid in 2007, and went completely need blind several years later. The school also runs an emergency aid fund to help students who cannot afford to fly home to visit a sick parent, or clothes for a job interview. But many schools, including many historically black colleges, don’t have the funds (Hamilton’s financial aid budget alone is more than $38 million) to accommodate such students, and losing middle-class kids to free public schools could make supporting poor students even harder, or force schools to take only the very richest students who can pay full price.

“I think what would happen is, we would have to become more elitist, because anybody who is not really wealthy is going to go to take the free option,” Sheila Bair, the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, told Politico recently. “I don’t want us to be elitist. I want us to have a diverse student population.”

But, as Inzer and others at the roundtable pointed out, the likelihood of free college becoming a reality may be slim. Rick Clark, the director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the school hosting the roundtable, wrote in an email after the discussion that the $125,000 line “is aspirational and highly doubtful to be adopted due to feasibility and competing priorities.”

For one thing, tuition often makes up a small portion of the cost of college, and it’s not clear how many states—where tuition rates are typically set—will be willing to contribute funding to the plan. Republicans, too, are reluctant to close the tax loopholes Clinton says she would use to pay for the plan. Yet Clark said he sees “wisdom in starting with a high bar in order to promote discussion, debate, compromise and ultimately movement upward as it relates to Pell increases, state re-investment, and institutional action for the next tier of low [socioeconomic status students.]”

While the prospect of real change at the national level remains tenuous, conversations about how to make college more accessible and affordable are already happening in some states and on some campuses. Georgia Tech promises that in-state students from families earning less than $33,000 will graduate debt free, and it is looking at meeting full need for families making less than $50,000, Clark said. The University of Chicago has started traveling with a number of other schools who also belong to the Coalition Application, an online toolkit that lets students build applications to different schools, to meet prospective high-school students, so that young people see a range of options they may not have known existed. Inzer’s team also travels the country seeking out high school students who may not have known Hamilton existed. “We were not going to get diverse without working on it,” she said.

At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, current students, particularly those from immigrant families who may not immediately see themselves reflected on campus, “are really engaged in the recruitment and enrollment process,” said Rachelle Hernandez, the associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions.

But admitting a diverse cohort of students is only the first step, and in the last several years schools have launched or expanded programs to help first-generation and low-income students who often come from families unfamiliar with higher education. These students’ families may not be tapped into the networks that so many wealthy families rely on to give their children a boost as they enter adulthood. “You have to help them get their first internship,” Nondorf said. “This stuff is relatively new.”

At Georgia Tech, students are encouraged to go to one-to-one tutoring when they need it, and the school tries to intervene early when it spots issues. Universities used to make the assumption that students would take advantage of campus programs, Hernandez said, but that’s no longer the case. Her team, she said, sends information home to families about what’s offered on campus to keep them informed and make sure they feel included. “It’s saying to the student, ‘You and your community matter to us.’” The University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, funds summer research and work opportunities for students so they don’t have to miss out on opportunities that could advance their careers to take summer jobs, said Stephanie Dupaul, the vice president for enrollment management. Retention is actually higher among low-income students, Dupaul added.

“I think we should talk more about that,” said Inzer, referring to retention. It’s an important piece of the conversation, and more policymakers are focusing on which schools successfully graduate students who are able to find good jobs and support themselves. Students who drop out are often left with loans they struggle to repay, and there is increasing pressure on schools to help students limit their debt.

Yet schools push back at some of the ideas students and some advocacy groups say would help more low-income young people earn a degree. Many schools, the University of Chicago and Georgia Tech included, have legacy admission programs that give some preference to students who come from families where a parent or sibling has attended the school, something that, by definition, benefits few first-generation students. And schools are reluctant to dip too far into their endowments; schools need to think not only about the present, Nondorf, whose school  has an endowment of more than $7 billion, said, but about the future, too.

Still, while there are clearly remaining challenges when it comes to enrolling and graduating students who have traditionally not had a place on college campuses, admissions leaders seem increasingly cognizant of the fact that student demographics are shifting, and, more importantly, that their increasingly varied needs are worth supporting.