The push for free college may be dead, for now, at the federal level, but as blue states including New York try with renewed vigor to expand higher education subsidies within their jurisdictions, it’s still worth emphasizing the factors complicating Bernie Sanders’ signature crusade. Among them: Hundreds of thousands of students currently attending college are not prepared for post-high school coursework, and colleges need to spend millions getting them up to speed. Hechinger Report:
The vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges report enrolling students – more than half a million of them–who are not ready for college-level work, a Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states has found.
The numbers reveal a glaring gap in the nation’s education system: A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college courses. Higher education institutions across the country are forced to spend time, money and energy to solve this disconnect. They must determine who’s not ready for college and attempt to get those students up to speed as quickly as possible, or risk losing them altogether.
Many of the students who need remedial coursework slip through the cracks on their way to a BA, accumulating debt and failing to graduate, or spending time earning degrees that don’t increase their earning power in the real world. The stark numbers from Hechinger highlight the fact that free college proposals essentially represent an effort to chase diminishing returns: They would push more marginal students into the higher education system, leading colleges to spend more time on remedial work and less on higher learning.
To use an analogy we are fond of: General Chiang Kai Shek was criticized for doing too much “issimo-ing” and not enough “general-ing.” In the same vein, one could argue that America’s progressive educational reformers are too enthusiastic about adding “extras” to the American educational system, like free college, before seeing to it that the basic function of secondary education—basic mastery of high school-level material—is the norm for all graduates. Down this path lies more cost and more credential inflation, but not necessarily better learning outcomes. The first priority should be to jumpstart the stagnant system we have now, not to haphazardly build on it further.