Is ‘Free College’ Just a Pointless Gimmick?

Stack of dollar billsI have been very excited over the past three weeks as college after college announces financial aid renovations that offer free tuition for students from low income families. In fact, Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and New York's Vassar College just joined the group this week. But another blogger is less enthusiastic, saying:

Recent news reports about Ivy League colleges offering "free education" to students from middle-class families paint a highly unrealistic picture of the challenges facing the majority of college-bound students.

His primary indictment is that "less than one-half of one percent of young people entering college next fall will actually benefit."

I disagree. While it is true that few students will benefit from the Ivy Leagues' financial aid changes -- simply because few students gain acceptance to Ivy League schools -- I think it is necessary to look at the bigger picture. Non-Ivy League universities like MIT, Stanford, and other well-respected colleges have mirrored the Ivy League approach to free tuition. The philosophy is spreading. To that point, a much larger percentage of students benefit from the Ivy League's financial aid programs -- even if only indirectly -- than he suggests.

He further contends that "[i]t is disingenuous to suggest that de facto merit scholarships at these institutions create more access and opportunity." Remember, though, that no one is suggesting that unqualified students can suddenly find a home at Harvard or Yale. Rather, it is the supremely talented and bright young adults who previously were barred from higher education simply because of an unaffordable tuition price tag have who benefit. While the number of these students is small, there are still several hundred who have gained access where previously they had none.

I do have to agree with his closing points, though, when he says:

[T]he formula for affording college expenses is fairly simple: find institutions that value the student for what s/he does well. Colleges that are good "fits" will invest in the student's success [...] [F]ocusing on "fit" instead of famous names will reveal that the "long overdue help" for middle class families has been within reach all along.

The new tread of Free College should not influence students and their families to reach beyond their realistic goals. Finding a university program which matches with a student is an important objective, and one that will ultimately pay greater dividends than pursuing a potentially unreachable Ivy League dream. "Famous names" are, indeed, not everything.

In closing, I believe that this Free College fad is beneficial in many ways, even if only because it encourages colleges across the nation to invest more of their substantial endowments in financing their students' educations. This is good for all students, even those that just save a few thousand dollars from a loan-to-grant conversation program. In the end, however, the strategy for college admissions remains the same: find a university that is a good fit first, and leave financial concerns for later consideration. The wave of Free College is good news, but it shouldn't override your other university objectives.

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Great info. I have 2 starting college this coming year.
Big help!

- Larry, 03/16/08 at 9:15 am

Hi, Larry. Glad to have been able to help. Make sure to keep an eye on the articles for parents for even more tips.

- Brian Cavner, 03/16/08 at 10:21 am

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