10 Musings about President Obama’s Future of Free Higher Education

Are you ready for free higher education in the United States? Today President Obama gave a preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, proposing a plan for a free two years of college for students who are willing to work for it.

This is bold, but it is not entirely new or unprecedented. There are pockets of programs around the United States that offer a route toward free college for 2 or more years. There are state-funded and/or mandated free dual credit (high school and college credit at the same time) programs, some of which allow students to enter college as a sophomore or junior. If we look beyond the United States, we see different examples of free or nearly free higher education solutions in places like Germany, Finland, Sweden, France, and Norway. These are not perfect systems, but they are bold statements about a national commitment to increased access to education. There are also colleges, including private ones, in the United States that have various approaches to providing a free college education.

My mind is racing with the challenges and opportunities. When I watched President Obama’s short video today, I had a strange mix of reactions. In July 2014, I wrote this article after several months of research on the history of universal free education, free higher education in various parts of the world, and experiments with free higher education in pockets within the United States. Amid this research, I became confident that free is in the future of American higher education.

I am excited and hopeful that we can use this to spark a rich national conversation. Toward that end I offer 10  initial thoughts and questions.

1. Private Schools – This might conjure concern for 4-year private institutions, wondering what sort of plan will be proposed and what the implications are for the future of these private organizations. Some elite schools or those with a strong donor base already have a financial model that is less dependent upon tuition. Other private institutions depend almost entirely upon tuition. What would this do to them? It might drive them to close their doors or to explore different approaches ranging from alternate funding models to more graduate or professional programs that will not be included in this early plan. As a University administrator who expected this, I already have pages of notes about exciting ways to respond and thrive even amid a universal free higher education program.

2. How will it be funded? – This will come out soon enough. There have been interesting arguments in the past that the cost of operating the federal financial aid programs for colleges already exceeds the cost of tuition charged at schools. If reducing federal financial aid to fund this effort is in the proposal, that will indeed shake up the models of for-profits and almost every University in the country.

3. Is this treating a symptom or addressing root causes? If this is mainly about workforce development then focusing on 2 free years of college is not, in my opinion, getting at the most important issues. While many employers look at degrees and diplomas as evidence of job preparedness, they do not truly provide such certainty. There are many important conversations and experiments with alternate ways of getting at workforce development issues than simply getting more people with academic credentials. This needs to be part of the conversation. What good is a low-impact but free education? What good is inflexible but free education?

4. As such, I continue to believe that some of the most promising social innovations around workforce development will come from beyond the walls of the University, even if we make it free…unless, for course, some of these Universities embrace the spirit of innovation present beyond its walls. Digital badges, nano-degrees, certificate programs tied directly to specific area of demand in one or more companies…these have great promise and there are brilliant, well-resourced, and influential groups actively engaged in conversations and efforts to re-imagine training and routes toward gainful employment.

5. Democracy thrives on human agency. We could make all education from kindergarten through the doctorate free, but without seriously considering the nature of what, how, and why we teach; we will not make progress in creating an American educational system that is about empowering and nurturing human agency. We can produce a good workforce without fostering a wise and informed citizenry.

6. There is a double standard that needs to talked about deeply and openly in our society. Some treat workforce development efforts and trade schools as being for “those” people, while others are given a truly broad and liberal education. The phrase “liberal arts” comes from the idea that such an education was liberating and for the liberated. It is the education of the free, elite, influential, the advantaged. Among that group we invite them to discover their passions and callings, to nurturing global perspectives, delve into the rich intellectual history of the world, to explore the big questions of life. For others, we give them the training needs to get a job. I don’t think the University has the corner on the market of these broader questions in the least, but I really want to explore what it means to give a world-class education that is free and/or accessible to as many people as possible, even as I am very open to defining world-class education in unexpected and unconventional ways.

7. Global competitiveness is so 1980s. Not that I know what rhetoric or narrative will be placed around this proposal, but I hope that it will extend beyond getting a generation better educated so that we can compete in a global economy. I’m not against competition metaphors. They can lead to some positive movements, innovations, and discoveries that benefitted many people. I think we can come up with a better metaphor. Maybe we need to pull out Neil Postman’s proposed metaphors in The End of Education. I think he was writing mostly about k-12 education, but his chapters about alternative metaphors for education serve as helpful discussion starters.

7. Will this help and serve the post-traditional student populations? The key part of the initial video is Obama’s reference to visiting Tennessee. This proposal is very likley to be about amplifying the Tennessee Promise, a program that offers a route to two free years of college for eligible high school students. That likely means that this does little for the majority of college degree seekers. That doesn’t make it bad, but I want to capitalize upon this news to explore the topic more broadly. In this article, I reference an essay that points to the fact that only 15% of those in college are traditional full-time residential students. The rest are what some call post-traditional. They are working, married, with children, adult learners, etc. How will this proposal address the majority of college students? Most of the current experiments in the United States around a free first two years are just targeting high school graduates.

8. There is a divide in college readiness and it is not just about the ability to pay a college bill. We have a problem in the United States with high school dropouts and graduates who do not have basic skills necessary to succeed at the collegiate level. Many of the risk factors extend well beyond the school walls. I am not convinced that this is a teaching effectiveness problem or even a school problem. It is a societal problem. While two free years of college can be an incentive for those who are willing to apply themselves, there are inequities and socio-economic factors that are far more complicated than this. I don’t write this to dismiss the potential benefits and value of President Obama’s proposal. I am intrigued and excited to hear and read more. It is just that I want to use this as a chance to talk about the broader issues. We must know what such a proposal will and will not accomplish. We must not embrace any such plan without clearly understanding the affordances and limitations.

9. This needs to be a candid dialogue that surfaces agendas, fears and concerns. Let’s put them out in the open, not letting them secretively drive agendas that are personal or political. This has implications for people’s jobs and work in higher education. This has implications for different higher education institutions, some will be exhilarated at the potential funding support while others will fear having to close their doors. There will be winners and losers if this plan is implemented. There will be partisan politics. There will fears of the unknown. I am hopeful that we don’t hide these but surface them. This is a chance to be larger than our affiliations and to dream together about new possibilities that can bring about social good and benefit real people.

10. This is a good move. That doens’t mean I will support the plan. I don’t even know what it is yet. Whether his proposed plan happens or not, I commend President Obama for starting the conversation. We need this conversation. If we allow it to be just that, a discussion starter and not just a drive to implement a pre-defined plan, I fear that it will fall short. We need more and more open discourse than we got around the Affordable Care Act. We can do this, but it will take a concerted effort from a critical mass of citizens, educational leaders, politicians, and people in the media (both old and new).