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Ideas | James S. Murphy

‘Free college’ shows how big ideas always get sanded down

Students and parents toured Purchase College in Purchase, N.Y., on April 21.Vincent Tullo/New York Times/File

Free college is back from the dead. But, just like the living dead in the movies, it came back wrong. What began as Bernie Sanders’ bold proposal to reduce inequality — to equip all Americans with knowledge they need in an unforgiving economy — has itself been reduced to a proxy for real action. Boston’s new “free college” plan, Boston Bridge, will likely do much more for the reputation of Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker than for the class of 2018.

Donald Trump’s election seemed to kill the dream of free college. Then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would be making the SUNY and CUNY colleges free for all New York residents with a household income less than $125,000. Tennessee made free community college universal. Rhode Island may do the same. According to researchers at Penn Ahead, which studies college promise programs, there are 219 states or municipalities that already have or have proposed some form of free two- or four-year college tuition.

Given the high sticker price of higher education, it’s no wonder that voters are drawn to the simplicity and power of universal free college. Politicians trying to capitalize on that popularity, however, are running into the hard problem of cost. As a result, they’re coming up with solutions so pared down that they make college free often in name only, for a relatively small number of students.

It’s a striking example of an all-too-common phenomenon: A grand block of idea is sanded down and sanded down in an effort to please different constituencies. Eventually, all the corners are gone, it rolls away, and little remains but the name. And yet the name alone is often enough to claim the credit for the big idea, never delivered. Arne Duncan, former secretary of education, praised Boston Bridge in a recent tweet.


Like most promise plans, the Boston Bridge program eliminates only tuition and fees; it doesn’t address the full cost of college, which also includes room, board, textbooks, and other expenses that can top $10,000 per year. At University of Massachusetts Amherst, for instance, they add up to more than $13,000 per year. Low-income students will still need to take out loans to cover these expenses, so it is inaccurate to call it free college.


It also isn’t universal, at least not in the way public K-12 education is. Boston Bridge promises two years of free school at a public college or state university to all Boston public and parochial high school students who are also eligible for Pell grants, which typically go to students whose household income is less than $50,000. They must also first attend a community college in the city and earn an associate’s degree in two and a half years while maintaining a 3.0 GPA.

Boston Bridge sets expectations higher for its beneficiaries than for paying students, which makes it a merit scholarship, not free college. Requiring an associate’s degree in two and a half years means a student will almost certainly take no remedial courses and attend school full-time, which is tricky when many students need to work while in school. Maintaining, rather than graduating with, a 3.0 means that a student lives under constant threat of losing his free tuition should he have a sub-par semester. Colleges do not remove students for having GPAs below a 3.0, nor do public high schools start charging students when their grades slip.

We should probably ask whether community college makes the best sense for the student who can meet the requirements of the Boston Bridge. Given the relatively low cost of Massachusetts state four-year schools, why not go straight to college and take advantage of the John and Abigail Adams scholarship, which already waives tuition for high-performing students? That might be precisely the intention. Last year, the city’s Tuition Free Community College program covered only 50 students, although over 4,000 students were eligible. Granting that program was only in its first year, the number should be seen as discouraging, unless, that is, the city and the state want the credit for creating free college without actually paying for it.


The danger is that the voters will let them.

James S. Murphy is a Brookline-based freelance writer who has written frequently about college access and admissions.