Low cost college isn't enough

Story highlights

  • Democrats are lining up behind no-debt college and low-cost college plans
  • David Perry: Don't forget that providing quality education is essential to make students successful

David M. Perry is a freelance journalist focusing on disability issues. He is author of the new book, "Sacred Plunder," and associate professor of history at Dominican University. He writes regularly at the blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It looks like Hillary Clinton and her challengers in the Democratic Party are going all-in on higher education. This could be good news for millions of Americans, but only if whatever policies emerge actually help the people who need it most.

The proposals coalesce around two related ideas: free college for the first two years versus debt-free college overall. Both have merit, though they would work in different ways, and experts are debating what might be most effective.
David M. Perry
Last week, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager recently became the latest Democrat to endorse the principle of "debt-free" college. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has offered an $18-billion-a-year plan to cut the cost of public tuition in half, and on Tuesday is expected to introduce a $70-billion plan to make public tuition entirely free.
    Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a likely presidential candidate, has endorsed debt-free college. The Congressional Democrats passed a short resolution on debt-free college in April. All of this, of course, follows on the heels of President Obama's State of the Union proposal of free community college to all Americans.
    As a university professor, I have a personal stake in the outcome of this debate. Good policies can absolutely bring down the skyrocketing costs of a college education, but these proposals only address half the problem. It's not just money that keeps many students who enroll as freshmen from walking across the stage at graduation. Affordable college doesn't matter if the college they can afford isn't designed to help vulnerable students succeed. The exclusive focus on cost misses the equally important question of quality.
    The emergence of college costs as a central political issue is good for two reasons: First, college is much too expensive. Costs at public universities have increased by over 250% over the past 30 years alone. Second, fighting income inequality will require more access to higher education of some sort. That's where people can learn what they need to know in order to compete for the jobs of tomorrow.
    But what plan, exactly, will work best for America's most struggling students?
    The Demos Foundation has produced a short document arguing for debt free college. It wants to see the maximum Pell Grant rate increased, while lowering costs through a combination of innovative programs and better accountability. To lower costs, it suggests more online teaching and AP classes, better transfer coordination between two-year and four-year schools, and lowering textbook costs. For accountability, the foundation advocates that all schools provide more data on graduation and employment rates. This aspirational document lays out a path to lower costs and better government support, resulting in much more affordable college.
    Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab says that "debt-free college" sounds fine as a slogan, but she's worried about how it will actually work. She'd like us to concentrate resources on those most in need. In an email to me, she wrote, "The very serious problem we face is a high price for students who need college but are at risk of non-completion. We need to make college affordable for them so they attain it. How much should we subsidize the rest to make this happen?" She added, "Focusing on making the first two years of college free is a far more targeted and effective approach."
    Debt by itself is not necessarily the problem. According to Goldrick-Rab, the bigger issue is whether the debt is unaffordable and whether the people who incur the debts early in their education actually finish. There's nothing worse than a student who has thousands of dollars in debt and no degree. So how do we increase the likelihood of success? It's not just a question of cost, we have to think about quality.
    Most professors want to be good teachers, but the pressure on universities to do more with less is making college teaching an increasingly precarious profession. That hurts teachers. It also hurts students, especially those who need the most guidance to attain that degree.
    The Pell Institute's publication "Moving Beyond Access: College Success For Low-Income, First-Generation Students" lists advising, tutoring, mentoring, and intense interaction in the classroom as among the key features necessary to retain first-generation students. In other words, it's not enough just to help students get into an affordable college. Once accepted, we have to help them succeed. I've seen advising, special programs and small classes work wonders at Dominican University, where I teach, and we're just one of many student-oriented universities that provide great supports for students who need it. But such programs and low student-to-faculty ratios cost money, and across the country, cost-cutting is making it harder for such students to thrive.
    One way universities cut costs is by shifting to online courses, especially big introductory classes. Many studies suggest, however, that vulnerable students fail at higher rates in online models of education. Despite this data, schools like Arizona State and Florida are trying to push more and more first-year students into online-only experiences, which they believe will save money and expand access. I was pleased to see that in the Starbucks collaboration with ASU, it is trying to include lots of infrastructure for its students. But I am concerned about the consequences overall of ASU outsourcing advising services.
    While face-to-face classes tend to be better, their quality too is highly dependent on how much time professors have to devote to each student. My classes are small, maxing out at 25 people. Within a week or two of a new semester, I'll know everyone's name. More importantly, it won't take me long to adjust to individual learning styles, help people find extra resources if they need them, and make the learning experience personal.
    That's not always possible, especially given the intensifying exploitation of academic labor. More and more of our teachers tasked in particular with introducing students to college are in terrible straits. Around 60% of all Community College teachers are part-timers.
    Four-year universities increasingly farm out their introductory courses to underpaid instructors or adjunct professors, often teaching five or more classes a semester at multiple schools to make ends meet, many on food stamps. It's hard to give that individualized attention to students when you've got to work multiple jobs to survive. What's amazing to me is that despite the challenges, so many adjuncts give so much time and care to their students.
    I hope that the cost of college becomes a major political issue. But let's remember that low cost must be paired with high quality. High quality means providing good jobs for the people asked to prepare students for good jobs of their own. It means building educational structures with lots of face time, individualized education, and support systems for those new to learning. Otherwise, we can cut costs down to nothing, but we won't help the people most in need. To fix higher ed, the focus on savings must be accompanied by a massive public reinvestment in teaching and advising.