How free college disproportionately benefits wealthier students | Opinion

By Thomas J. Botzman

Washington Post education reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel recently penned an interesting article about the “no lose proposition” of free college among politicians stumping across the country. In doing so, she highlights several aspects of this concept that may have escaped notice.

I will try to add to her list with a few others.

The seasoned reporter asks, for example, how many years of college should federal and/or state governments pick up the tab for students? Some states, such as New Jersey and Maryland, have plans that cover the cost of community colleges. Others, such as New York, provide grants to students at public four-year universities.

On the community college side, the current Pell Grant and other federal aid cover much, if not all, of the cost at these two-year institutions.

The “last dollar in” approach taken by many states reduces the cost to the state. However, in reality it provides more funding to the wealthier student and less to the student with financial challenges. The result is that in several states, such as Louisiana, about one-half of the aid goes to families with income greater than $100,000, according to the report.

Clearly, this does help the middle class, but it certainly is not a program aimed at those with the least ability to pay for college. In this scenario, students who struggle to pay for food or housing have few options remaining after federal financial aid.

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At four-year colleges and universities, many students borrow as undergraduates as a gateway to graduate studies.

In fact, according to a recent collaborative study by The Urban Institute’s Sandy Baum and Higher Ed Insight’s Patricia Steele, 34 percent of federal student loans go to graduate students, even though they comprise only 17 percent of all college students, thereby accounting for about one-third of all collegian loans.

Overall, graduate students borrow on average $18,210 compared to $5,460 for undergraduates.

So, who ends up with the large student debt noted in media reports?

Fifty-six percent of graduate students from law school, for example, have more than $100,000 of debt, while 64 percent of graduates with a professional degree in health care, such as medicine or dentistry, also reach six-figures in debt.

Providing “free tuition” to wealthy students, in effect, will cut their graduate debt while leaving less wealthy students out of these prestigious professional careers.

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank reports that students average about $32,000 in loans, with the median about $17,000.

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The difference between the mean and median indicates that a smaller number of students, such as the graduate students above, skew the data by taking on substantially more debt. Coincidentally, the average for loan debt nationally is close to that at Misericordia University, where I serve as president.

Private, not-for-profit institutions such as Misericordia, graduate students who have the tools for a successful career. As a result, less than 9% of private college graduates are behind on student loans. Conversely, students who do not graduate or attend a for-profit college tend to have more difficulty repaying their loans.

We can, and all should be, supportive of students attaining a college degree without incurring excessive debt.

In my view, the current federal and state programs, such as the Pell Grant and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grant (more commonly known as PHEEA), direct funds toward students with the greatest need.

As the federal government looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which guides student financial aid, legislators should continue and enhance funding to the existing financial aid programs.

Support students with need rather than providing free college to the rich.

Thomas J. Botzman is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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