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© Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash


Money Alone Is Not Enough

by Michelle Miller-Adams
May 10, 2019

This interview with Michelle Miller-Adams, a professor and senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

Part One of this conversation is available here.

When you look at and consider all of your research over the years, what is your ideal version of 'free college' programs? And how do you push what you know and what you're curious about to the forefront of our national conversation around college affordability?

As we enter another presidential primary, what would you like the conversation to look like? What do you think the most critical debate around this issue should be?

That is another great question, and actually, I'm about to start thinking seriously about it, because I'm about to write a book on this topic.

While I hope the ideas in my book will influence the national discourse, I'm not holding my breath for a national program, because I just think that politically, it's a really tough lift. If you look at the history of policy innovation in our country, this is exactly how it happens. Things get pioneered at the local level, and then they spread to other local communities, and then they may jump up to the states, and then maybe eventually, they'll find their way into federal policy. I just think that even though all the Democrats are talking about this, once they get in power, and depending who winds up in the Congress, a nationwide free-college program is not a surefire outcome.

That being said, we had a proposal in 2015 from President Obama that made a great deal of sense. To me, it's still the gold standard model out there for triangulating all of those various needs. It was called America's College Promise – no legislation was ever introduced but the policy proposal was out there. It was a federal-state partnership that would make community colleges tuition free. If states opted to participate–- and there were performance requirements if they did – the federal government would foot most of the bill. And importantly, it was designed to be a first dollar program.

That leads me to your question. I especially value programs that have universal eligibility. Basically, in programs like these, everybody can take a crack at it.

I don't care what your attendance was in high school, maybe you'll get it together in college. That's important to me from an equity standpoint.

In a perfect world, which we don't live in, a first dollar program is far preferable to a last dollar program, because it has that better equity impact, where low-income students also get new money, and then they can use their Pell Grants to pay part of the way of their living expenses. If you do a universal program, and you focus it on community colleges, as Obama's program did and as Tennessee and Rhode Island do – whether first- or last-dollar – you are doing some de facto targeting. You are targeting low and moderate-income students, because honestly, Tatti, do you know many wealthy students who went to community college?

Very few.

Right. There may be a few, but that might just be the price you pay. If an affluent student is headed toward an elite or even semi-elite four-year institution, they're probably not going to make the decision to go to community college to get their $2,000 a year scholarship. On the other hand, students who weren't necessarily going anywhere, or those at the margin who are stressed in terms of finances, may decide to go to community college, and students on a four-year track may decide to start at the community college and cut their costs dramatically. Students do that all the time. I teach at a large state university, and we have plenty of students who started at a community college because it's cheaper – and then transfer to the four-year school to get their bachelor's.

These would be the elements of my ideal program: that the program would effectively target low-income students by focusing on community colleges, and that they would be structured on a first-dollar basis so they would have this positive equity component.

Two other things are really important. One powerful lesson that we have learned over the years is that simplicity is your ally in these programs. With complex programs there's just too much confusion around the messaging. New York State has a program called the Excelsior Scholarship, and it's really innovative in one sense, which is that it allows students to go to public four-year institutions, as well as two-year community colleges, which is great. However, there is so much fine print that very few students actually qualify for the scholarship.

The simpler the better. If you can say it in a couple sentences, that's a good sign. But the other important element is this question of support. Thinking seriously about what kinds of resources are needed all along that educational continuum to help students, particularly those who haven't been successful in school, access higher ed, be successful in getting there, staying there and completing is really important.

A pithy way to put is is that money alone is not enough.

Tennessee Promise has a mentorship program, and while the mentorship component is not as intensive as it was for the predecessor local program, it marks a recognition of the value of mentorship in helping students be successful in higher ed. Tennessee also has an adult free community college program called Tennessee Reconnect, and even that has a support structure built in. It doesn't come out of public money. It comes out of the philanthropic sector. There are a lot of ways to do this, but it's important to recognize that the money by itself is not going to change your outcomes that much.

As a short digression, I've been really busy, so I haven't been very active on Twitter, but I do want to respond to Pete Buttigieg's response

He was pretty negative about free college. He basically said there's this huge college wage premium, where people with college degrees get paid a lot more than people who don't, and that's absolutely true. And he doesn’t like the idea of people without college degrees subsidizing those who are going to get the college wage premium. I think he misses the boat on this. The point of Promise programs is to bring those people who aren’t headed for college – whether because of confusion about the process or lack of financial resources – into the process so they can go on and get some of that college wage premium. Right?

It's not to help the privileged, because the privileged are doing okay. He kind of missed the point.

Another presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has come out with a number of big equity-based policy ideas and one of the latest is her plan for tuition-free college and student loan debt relief. Her ideas are bold and not always fully practical, but this one had an important element, which is that if we're going to make public colleges and universities tuition free, we had better also address the student loan burden. One of the challenges of free college is that if you come up with a national program, you still have all these people walking around with this huge student loan debt. So there's a real equity challenge there, if you aren't going to do something about the people who already got indebted, then it's sort of just a generational unfairness.

We're having that discussion in Michigan. Our new governor, just this week, introduced legislation for three tuition-free college initiatives, one for community colleges, one for four-year publics and one for adults, closely modeled on Tennessee, but there's no component that deals with the student debt situation, and the legislation. Because we have this very Republican Congress it's probably not going to go very far, but we'll see.

So here’s my question for the candidates: "Free college is being promoted by many of you. How would you structure a free college program that is equitable, effective and based on evidence – that is, what we know about what works and what doesn't?" And it would be really hard to answer that question, because there's very little evidence playing a role in these policy debates.

It’s a fascinating aspect of the free-college movement. A lot of money is being committed to support free-college initiatives without a lot of evidence about what they do and don’t accomplish. I know that because we sit here at ground zero of trying to generate some of that evidence, and there are many, many, many things we do not know. This is not a heavily researched, proven model where we really understand what we're doing.

That's, of course, because it's not sexy to invest in research and evaluation. It's sexy to invest in free college.