How Free College Can Help Remake the U.S. Economy: Noah Smith

As the Democrats’ budget bill takes shape, higher education policy is once more a point of contention. It's a good time to rethink the country’s approach to higher ed, which has become increasingly contradictory and unsustainable in recent decades. Most importantly, policymakers should ponder how to make U.S. colleges both an engine of upward mobility and a support system for key industries.

Many people who focus on the problems in the U.S. university system consider only rising tuition and student debt. Others are preoccupied with inequities at elite universities like the Ivy League. Both concerns are legitimate, but the challenges extend far beyond these issues. Start with the fact that the university system has grown increasingly inequitable. As of right now, students from lower-income backgrounds with high test scores are less likely to graduate than high-income students with low scores:

Fiddling with admissions at Ivy League schools isn’t likely to solve the problem. When organizations like the Equality of Opportunity Project, U.S. News and World Report, and CollegeNET have tried to calculate the degree to which various schools give their students an economic boost, schools in the California State system, the City University of New York system, and other cheap state schools do the best. Furthermore, top private schools like Harvard and Yale have small student bodies — perhaps 100,000 in total, compared to almost half a million for the Cal State system alone.

U.S. higher education policy should aim to increase the number of people who graduate from these institutions — and without coming away with big debt burdens. Subsidizing tuition is a part of this, but for lower-income students, room and board are a much bigger factor.

Offering cheap housing to students at working-class schools is essential.

Nor is money the only issue keeping working-class kids from completing college. Policies like unified applications can save kids the money, effort and confusion of applying to many schools. Investment in mentoring and guidance counseling in high school can encourage students from modest backgrounds to set their sights higher, and help them prepare for the challenges of college.

Yet it’s also important to recognize that not every American should graduate from a four-year university. Because the debate over higher education tends to be dominated by people who themselves graduated from four-year colleges, there’s a natural tendency to imagine a world where everyone is a well-rounded professional with a liberal arts degree from a good school. But this is nothing like the reality that working-class Americans face — not only are many not prepared for the coursework at a four-year school, but many simply want to get out in the working world as fast as possible and earn a good salary for their families. Research shows that community colleges are important and powerful engines of upward mobility, so these institutions need more support.