ASA Blog

Let’s Redefine College First, Then “Free”


FEBRUARY 18, 2020

With the 2020 presidential primaries well underway, many candidates are touting their plans for how to educate and upskill America to close the current skills gaps and create a more prosperous future for all citizens. These plans promise bold action, and we commend the candidates for thinking creatively to address the complex challenges we face. While many of these ideas sound appealing, questions still remain. We need to go beyond the buzzwords grabbing headlines and break down the phrases, misconceptions and embedded policy quandaries, and examine how these proposals will shape the experiences of real students and families.

The education policy idea receiving the lion’s share of media attention and public debate these days is, of course, “free college.” Questions abound on what, exactly, is meant by free. Is it tuition-free or debt-free? Free public four-year institutions or community colleges? And is it fair to call it free if it’s free to the student but not the taxpayer?

Our suggestion, however, is to focus not on defining “free” but instead on defining “college.” The word, for many, conjures images of ivy-covered buildings and traditional four-year institutions, where students live on campus and attend class while earning a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree. As time and technology have proven, this is not the only path to success. Students benefit from a variety of options for education and training beyond high school. From associate degrees to apprenticeships, bachelor’s degrees and industrial certificates, there are numerous credentials that lead to meaningful work and lives. The traditional notion of “college” is no longer the only viable option to economic mobility.

Changing the Dialog

Rather than solely focusing on the financing, we need to drastically change the dialog and broaden the perception of college. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle should lead the charge in defining college as any high-quality education or training beyond high school. Proposals that emphasize alternative higher education options with positive student outcomes, like the Strengthen Career and Technical Education in Higher Education Act, can go a long way in reducing the prevailing stigmas around taking the postsecondary road less traveled. “Pathways” policies have also won bipartisan support, a rare feat in these polarized times.

Shifting policymakers’ perception of college is only half the battle, though. We’ll also need to change the myriad societal influencers, from parents to peers to media that impact young people’s education plans. Pushing kids down a one-size-fits-all track to a four-year higher education program won’t produce the motivated, credentialed workforce our nation needs. Only 60 percent of the students who begin a bachelor’s degree go on to receive one, often because outside pressures shaped their higher education path more than their own interests or career goals. In an ASA study of middle and high school students, nearly half reported that they believe their parents’ desire for them to go college outweighed their own.

But we must thread this needle carefully, because increasing awareness of alternative post-secondary paths does not mean education beyond high school is no longer worth it. Too many young people today may be interpreting the debate about higher education ROI to mean that a high school education is “enough.” The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly half of young Americans ages 13-29 say a high school diploma prepares people well for success in today’s economy. Students need to feel ownership over their decision about post-secondary education, because we know that entering the workforce straight out of high school is not a practical option in the 21st century.

Students with some form of credential under their belts succeed far more in the workplace than those with just a high school diploma. As the US Bureau of Labor Statistics put it, “the more you learn, the more you earn.” Higher levels of educational attainment mean better job prospects, but also a better quality of living and a longer life.

These are facts that the presidential candidates and eventual nominees cannot ignore in their policy proposals. While all high school graduates don’t need to be on the same higher education path, they must at least have some path that prepares them for the jobs of the future. We need political leaders who prioritize post-secondary education opportunity – in whatever form that may take – for all Americans.

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