The United States has no national system of higher education, and each of the states works somewhat differently. Overlooking this basic fact risks creating a policy that could make things worse instead of better.
All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates want to make college free for at least some students. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren say all public colleges should be tuition-free. Pete Buttigieg has proposed making public college tuition free for families earning up to $100,000, saying at Thursday’s debate that “I just want you to go ahead and pay your own tuition” if “you’re in that lucky top 10 percent.” And Joe Biden has proposed eliminating tuition at community colleges, but not at four-year ones.
But the candidates’ plans generally fail to explain how the federal government should make college free nationwide. States vary widely in how well they fund their public colleges, and how much they charge for tuition. In-state prices for a year at a four-year public college range from about $6,000 in Florida and Wyoming to about $17,000 in Vermont and New Hampshire. States that charge students the most tend to be those that fund their colleges the least.
This creates a problem for federal policymakers who want to make college affordable everywhere. A plan that simply pays whatever colleges are charging would bail out states like Vermont at the expense of states like Wyoming — and encourage states to raise tuition to capture more federal money.
The solution would have to consider states’ investment, and the details matter a lot.
More specific free-college proposals from members of Congress and think tanks are usually built around a state-federal partnership that provides matching funds if states meet certain requirements. This is similar to the approach of programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Mr. Sanders has proposed a plan to provide matching funds to states that eliminate tuition and meet other requirements such as quality benchmarks. Separately, a fellow senator, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and the Center for American Progress have plans that take a similar approach but would allow states to charge tuition based on family income. Depending on the plan, the states would pay 30 percent to 50 percent of the cost.
The Century Foundation has proposed a tiered system in which states can choose how widely to offer free college, with wealthier states expected to cover a larger share of the cost.
This approach could lead to free college in some states, but probably not all. The Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion is instructive, with 14 states declining to participate despite the federal government’s promise to cover 90 percent of the cost.
How many states would participate in a free college partnership with the federal government? It would probably depend on how much federal money is on the line; how much states are required to contribute; and the politics of college affordability.
The design of a free college policy matters not just for how many states participate, but also for which students in those states benefit — and which might be hurt. States that stretch their budget to adopt free college might lack the resources to provide high-quality instruction or support services for students who need them most. These states might fund their institutions inadequately, inequitably or both.
Eliminating tuition as a revenue source could also constrain states’ ability to expand popular institutions and programs. A low-income student might find the promise of a free college education dashed by a rejection letter from a local public college, grown more selective as the lure of free tuition pulls students away from private colleges and into public ones.
To avoid such unintended consequences would require the federal government to do far more than just provide funding to states. Existing free college proposals count on federal requirements and oversight.
A bolder approach to free college would make participating in a federal-state partnership the only way a state could get federal money for higher education. A 2016 proposal from New America would do this by eliminating Pell grants, student loans and education tax credits. This plan would instead fund colleges through formula-based grants to institutions and states that meet federal requirements.
Putting all federal money on the line could get all states to participate but would be an enormous expansion of the federal role in higher education.
No candidate has proposed blowing up the state-based system and replacing it with one in which the federal government mandates free college — for some or for all. But even a modest free-college policy would involve significantly expanding the federal role. And it is unclear how effectively the Department of Education could ensure that public colleges in every state offer a high-quality education to all students who want one.
If Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren were running for governor of a state, the income cap issue — whether college should be free for everyone or just for low- and middle-income families — might be the most important point of disagreement about free college. But as a federal policy, the major challenge is how to ensure broad participation while avoiding the pitfalls inherent in a national answer to a 50-state question.
Matthew Chingos is director of the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @chingos.