President Biden: Don’t Sacrifice Higher Education Outcomes at the Altar of Access

There’s nothing more expensive than free.
- The Wire

In its infinite wisdom, American democracy has decided to expunge the most acute illness in its body politic, although like a nasty virus, it proved harder than expected. Now we can begin to think about non-political pursuits. Perhaps check out one of the few live theatrical productions permitted in these dark days. Two weeks ago, a new show called Temping opened in New York’s East Village. The premise is that 53-year-old actuary Sarah Jane Tully is taking a vacation and you’ve been hired to cover for her. You enter an office, find your cubicle, sit in your ergonomic office chair, and turn on your desktop computer and printer. As the name suggests, Temping involves 45 minutes of responding to e-mails and updating client records in spreadsheets.

Many theater goers have cried at the numbing tasks. One reported that the show moved her to quit her job. According to the New York Times review, “a group of actuaries came… They were like ‘This is pretty much our job.’” According to the artists behind Temping, “each performance is unique, depending on which tasks you accomplish.”

You’ve got to hand it to the creators: getting you to pay to do a job is a great business model. Meanwhile, over in the marginally less Bizarro World of higher education, you’re paying to get a job. But with the defeat of America’s first and only pro-Covid President and the election of the first anti-Covid President with a free college plan, soon you may not have to pay. The question is, is it worth it if you don’t get a job?


All signs are pointing to increased federal funding for American higher education. Colleges and universities are planning unprecedented budget cuts and states are expecting a record decline in tax revenues. This would be bad enough at any time, let alone amidst a brutal recession. But even before Covid, President-elect Biden promised that students from families earning less than $125,000 would be able to attend community colleges and public four-year institutions without paying tuition. How do we know? Not only is it in his platform, he also told Cardi B.:

Joe: Also, by the way, if I get elected president, anybody with a family [that makes] less than 125 grand, you’re going to get free education. And everybody gets free community college.

Cardi B: Do you think that’s going to be able to happen?

Joe: Absolutely, positively.

And hopefully Joe knows not to mess with Cardi B.

We now have a reasonable estimate of what the Biden plan will cost. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) says the plan will run $50B in the first year and nearly $700B over a decade. This assumes the federal government only funds 75% with states picking up the rest. Given projected state deficits, the federal government would almost certainly need to absorb the full cost, at least for a few years, to enact free college. So probably closer to $1 trillion over a decade.

There are many challenges to implementing free college. They include:

But the biggest problem with free college is that it’s become yet another education policy litmus test within the Democratic Party. First there was resistance to President George W. Bush’s K-12 testing (No Child Left Behind). Next there was the Obama-era view that for-profit colleges are inherently predatory. In the last four years, DeVos’s fanaticism around charter schools and school choice – and Trump’s diabolical embrace – turned resistance to charters and choice into a surprising new litmus test and drove Democratic leaders into the arms of tut-tutting teachers’ unions. Now the newest Democratic Party litmus test is free college and its kissing cousin, debt forgiveness. Senators Sanders and Warren popularized the policy from the left and candidate Biden acceded with the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations. In addition to adopting free college, Biden has joined the debt forgiveness gang, saying at a town hall in Miami that he would lop $10,000 off every borrower’s student loan in response to Covid, and increasing the cost of free college by an additional $400B.

Litmus tests leave little room for debate, discussion, or trade-offs; policy becomes an article of faith or dogma. Experts tend to recommend debate, discussion, and trade-offs before committing to spend $1.4 trillion dollars. Georgetown CEW’s Tony Carnevale suggests pairing any commitment to tuition-free college with mandated pre-enrollment counseling to help students understand what jobs and salary levels they should expect: “We can’t be spending this kind of money on something… without some accountability and transparency.”

When we invest in postsecondary education, there are three hoped-for outcomes: (1) learning; (2) completion of a valuable credential; and (3) employment. What does Biden’s higher education platform actually say? (1) No initiatives focused on measuring or improving learning; (2) new grant programs for community colleges and four-year institutions to promote completion, but without specifics or spend; (3) two proposals targeting employment: a new $50B investment in workforce training “including community college-business partnerships and apprenticeships,” and a long overdue overhaul of the federal work study program. But between free college, doubling Pell grants, and increasing the generosity of income-based repayment and public service loan repayment, new investment in access crowds out outcomes at a ratio of 30 or 40:1.

I get it. It’s a lot easier to pour more money into institutions that are ready, willing, and able to spend vs. building something new. Plus putting more money in the pockets of education professionals is consistent with the President-elect’s embrace of K-12 teachers’ unions. But higher education outcomes are too important to overlook. Even before Covid, new and recent graduates were facing record underemployment due to digital transformation of the economy and fast-evolving entry-level job requirements, and higher education’s inability to keep up (or lack of interest or incentive). Now that we’re facing an unprecedented increase in hiring friction due to the need for remote onboarding and remote work, we risk losing a generation. According to a new Strada survey of 4,000 undergraduates, fewer than one in five strongly agree their education will be worth the cost. Brandon Busteed estimates the “magic of college” now only happens for a very small minority of students (he says 2%) while 25% get virtually no benefit. And if we’re concerned about older displaced workers – and we should be with 11M newly unemployed – only 29% of those who enroll end up completing. With numbers like these, free college goes from being an interesting idea to little more than education policy theater.


Free college is meant to help build a bridge to economic opportunity – a bridge that is desperately needed, and the lack of which is a major cause of economic, social, and political upheaval over the past four years. But if the bridge doesn’t lead to the other side – i.e., completion and good jobs – then it’s not a bridge. It’s just a pier. Channeling new dollars to access over outcomes at a ratio of 30 or 40:1 is paying lip service to outcomes while pushing bodies into unaccountable colleges and universities, hoping that magic will happen, which sounds more like Trump than Biden.

An evidence- or science-based higher education policy would prioritize outcomes and invest in access accordingly. Sadly, evidence and science tend to be powerless in the face of a litmus test: Are you for free college or not? Isn’t $1.6T in student loan debt unconscionable and unsustainable? But when learning, completion, and employment outcomes from college are sketchy and deteriorating, democratizing access to college is not the same as democratizing opportunity.

In all likelihood, free college’s $1.4T price tag will get washed away in a flood of more pressing initiatives. If and when that happens, President-elect Biden should limit any federal investment in free college to students who are truly low-income, freeing up funds for new investments in outcomes. There are good ideas floating around. Last week Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced legislation that would establish a new Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) to provide workforce training in digital technologies starting at up to 30 locations around the country. The bill also provides tax incentives for employers to hire rural and minority STEM graduates, in effect paying for placement. Or consider any of the items on my recent laundry list.

If we can get past the free college litmus test, there are many ways to close America’s education-to-employment gap. And Democrats should keep in mind that litmus tests haven’t been healthy for the Republican party (see e.g., guns, America First, Trump). They often lead to ineffective boondoggles – how’s that border wall going? 2020 America is a complicated place, and the right answers are more likely to be thought-through policies and investments in new models than slogans and funneling cash to the same old same old.

We’ve seen what dogmatic investment in postsecondary access looks like. It’s called Europe. And if you’re interested in the resulting economic dynamism, your grasp of economics is on par with the creators of Temping. So while I’m grateful Joe Biden is saving America from a benighted plague-monger, here’s hoping he can get serious about improving higher education outcomes and forego another progressive performance art piece.