A New Plan: College for Free!? (Mark Cuban is Paying…)

College is expensive nowadays. There are various arguments out there why that is the case, as I previously discussed in the post Dear college student with exorbitant tuition bill: Blame your legislator.

However, there is a new plan on the table by the Sara Goldrick-Rab, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and 2014 AERA Early Career Awardee (a big deal). There is lots to like in Professor Goldrick-Rab’s proposal. I like the plan as long it doesn’t come with an NCLB-style outcomes based accountability system for higher education. Sara hasn’t suggested this, but you know policymakers… these are the same folks that are currently thinking high-stakes testing for Pre-K is a brilliant idea.

Anyways, Sara sent me the following blog. It is a clever approach that leverages existing resources with some new additional resources as a national strategy. Yes, sorry, Mark Cuban is not actually paying (unless he wants to pick up the tab, he has the resources to do so I believe— I digress). Without further ado.


Sara Goldrick-Rab, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Twitter: Saragoldrickrab

Almost half a century ago, the federal government expanded financial aid to college students to make college more affordable – but today the odds of getting a degree are more tightly linked to family income than ever before. Inequality is growing: between 1992 and 2004, the odds that a high school graduate who took at least Algebra II would decide not to go to college went up among all income-groups except the very wealthiest. Students from families of modest means have also become more likely to drop out from public colleges and universities – leaving with debts, not degrees.

This situation is antithetical to the American Dream. That’s why last week my colleague Nancy Kendall and I issued a policy proposal to make the first two years free for all qualified students at community colleges and public universities. This would control rising costs and improve access to higher education for the majority of Americans.

The current financial aid system is messed up. Aid goes to students who choose to pursue degrees at institutions of all kinds, public, private, and for-profit. Over time, costs of attendance in all sectors have skyrocketed, but this is particularly true in the for-profit sector where students are encouraged to make heavy use of public aid but often stop their studies short of a degree. Financial aid doesn’t cover as much of the costs as it once did. And even though students from the poorest families are likely to receive grants rather than loans, these students still often end up paying a lot themselves, carrying a proportionately higher burden of costs than students from better-off families.

The bottom line is that the U.S. federal government thinly spreads a financial aid pool of about $170 billion a year across many types of students and schools, and in the end leaves many low-income families paying too much. Such families shell out about 40% of family income for a member to attend community college, and for four-year colleges the bill can add up to 59% of a low-income family’s earnings. Even a middle-class family earning $81,000 a year may be asked to spend or borrow a quarter of that annual income to finance one child’s attendance at a public four-year university. The cost is far higher for most private colleges.

Not only do families face high costs, but also people must navigate through a highly bureaucratic and time-consuming process with repeated applications and verifications mandated by multiple layers of government. Students and families often come away unhappy and with too little to pay for college expenses without working very long hours or racking up startlingly high debts. The experience heightens distrust of government and educational institutions.

The fact is that financial support for college attendance in America does not have to be so inefficient, poorly targeted, and frustrating. By focusing the same resources already being spent on helping qualified students complete their first two years at public colleges and universities, a simple message could be delivered to students from all family backgrounds: If you earn your high school degree, the country will ensure that you can obtain a 13th and 14th year of education at no cost to you beyond doing a modest amount of work while you attend college.

Here’s how the plan works:

  • All eligible students would be able to attend any public two- or four-year college or university to which they could gain admittance at no financial cost for the first two years.
  • The federal government would redeploy existing financial aid funds to cover first and second-year tuition for all students, and to provide additional funding for colleges that do a good job of educating relatively large numbers of low-income students.
  • Per-student funding would be set at a higher level than the average tuition currently charged by community colleges, and at just a slightly lower level than the average charged by four-year public colleges and universities. Institutions participating in the public program would not be able to charge tuition or additional fees to the covered first and second-year students.
  • The states would also contribute to the program by redirecting financial aid funds to cover the cost of books and supplies for first and second-year students.
  • Students’ living expenses would be covered through a public stipend equal to fifteen hours a week of employment at a living wage in the given local area, supplemented by federal work-study funding and access to federal loans equaling up to five hours a week of employment.

This model would redirect public financial aid resources to control costs, increase quality, decrease achievement gaps, and improve graduation rates by working in partnership with the community colleges and public universities that serve the majority of low and middle-income students. The system would become much more transparent and cost-effective for everyone – and above all for working families and U.S. taxpayers.

See also UW-Madison professors propose making first two years of college free and coverage of Free College proposal from News 3

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  • Dale:
    (1) MOOCS are not college, do not pretend to be college, and all of the evidence is that those using them already HAVE a college education. Even their founders would dispute your contention.
    (2) This isn’t “hidden funding”– that’s what we have now. This is explicit and is tied to specific requirements for allocation to stop the spread of spending on non-educational expenses.
    (3) Community colleges are no longer affordable. The average out of pocket cost a student from a family earning less than $30,000 faces to attend those school is now about $8,500. Living expenses are required in order to attend college; I’m sure you’re familiar with opportunity costs. Our paper expands on these data points at length. http://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/ideas_summit/Redefining_College_Affordability.pdf


  • – College education is already free — online. edx + coursera offer extremely high quality education for absolutely nothing.
    – This is not about “free” education in the sense of eliminating the expenses involved in providing education like the online providers are doing, but big government funded college education, where the cost is hidden to the students and financed by some form of taxation of others or deficit spending.
    – Community colleges offer a classroom & campus experience at heavily subsidized and affordable rates. A full year of full enrollment at ACC costs $2463 in tuition and that’s not including the extensive financial aid offered on top of that. The larger cost is generally living expenses outside of college.


  • So Don, the question is, are you going to stand with us and against them given your scholarship and knowledge in this area?


  • Pingback: College for Free!? (Mark Cuban is Paying…) | Educational Policy Information

  • Get ready for the pushback from the private NFP and for-profit sectors. They’re not going to give up their billions without an ugly and bloody fight.


  • California had a First Year Free plan in the 60s. It was one of the first things Reagan killed when he became Governor.


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