Public Higher Education

Public Higher Education Should Be Universal and Free

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the nation's first translational research laboratory on college affordability and the author of the forthcoming "Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream."

College should be affordable. It’s hard to find an American family who doesn’t agree. But most politicians continue to think that the way to make college more affordable is to target financial aid to low-income students. After 15 years studying public higher education, and testing the effects of financial aid, I disagree. Targeted financial aid isn’t getting the job done. It’s time for universal public higher education.

It helps students focus on learning rather than working so that they complete degrees faster and having acquired more skills.

Today’s targeted financial aid provides too little to too few. The onerous and inaccurate Free Application for Federal Student Aid divides American families into two unlucky groups. On the one hand, students deemed deserving of help receive aid that is usually far short of the resources required to effectively pursue their studies and graduate. On the other, students from middle-class families are treated as if they can manage with loans alone.

This is both bad public policy and bad politics. Efforts to make college affordable via targeted financial aid are divisive. Families that don’t get aid resent those that do. Over time, the purchasing power of programs like the Pell Grant has eroded for lack of political support, and recipients have been denigrated as lazy, “academically adrift” and akin to “welfare recipients.” Compare that to the solid support for Medicare and Social Security, which offer benefits to all senior citizens.

How we finance public higher education is a matter of political will. Universal public higher education recognizes that college must be affordable for all if it is to help drive our economy and our democracy. Lowering prices for students is just the start — it also comes with shared responsibility for funding higher education and ensuring quality. It helps students focus on learning rather than working so that they complete degrees faster and having acquired more skills. Best of all, it recognizes that ability to pay is not a marker of talent in America — unleashing the potential in us all.


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