Saturday, April 19, 2014


In a recently released Lumina Foundation policy paper, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall reveal their plan to give Americans a free 2 year college option (F2CO).  That is, the 13th and 14th years of (postsecondary) education at community college would be free, which under F2CO means:

“…students will not face any costs for tuition, fees, books or supplies, and will receive a stipend and guaranteed employment at a living wage to cover their living expenses. Unsubsidized, dischargeable loans of a small amount will also be available for those who need them.”

In a number of important ways, this plan is inferior to the professional model for higher education that I propose (referred to here as, PSA). Having made this claim in a tweet to Sara Goldrick-Rab, her reply was that PSA is:

…not adjusted for increases in enrollment and persistence rates; would result in declining per student $ over time.”

Recognizing the reply is on the fly and limited by 140 characters, this nevertheless is not effective criticism of the competing model I propose and actually finds greater traction in F2CO.  I will demonstrate this and more by examining central claims of the F2CO plan as they relate to PSA.  I have elected to do this in point form in order to expedite publication of my reply to this policy paper and Goldrick-Rab’s criticism of PSA, while keeping the length manageable (though with quotes from F2CO it remains a lengthy post).  The responses I offer assume a working knowledge of the PSA proposal.  If the reader does not possess this I recommend this initiation document be read first.

I begin with a quick response to the twitter-launched criticism, which is filled out as I consider F2CO claims/reasoning in order of presentation in the policy paper (with page references):

1. (April 17th Twitter Reply from SGR) PSA is “not adjusted for increases in enrollment and persistence rates [which] would result in declining per student [funding] over time.”

[Update, April 20th: For my efforts to improve the state of higher education and my attempt to engage in open, intellectually honest dialogue on F2CO I was Twitter-blocked by Sara Goldrick-Rab.] 

[Update, April 25th: In my attempts to provide analysis of the F2CO plan across various comment forums and have critical questions about F2CO answered by Sara Goldrick-Rab she has publicly (on Twitter) called me a "goofy guy," "unstable or otherwise not ok," and "laughable" - though she admits on Twitter to not having read the PSA proposal or the critical analysis offered below.  This is unacceptable, shameful behaviour from a publicly paid academic.]

I do not see that F2CO allows for such adjustment either.  The funding for this proposal uses all the existing federal and state contribution (in aid, tax benefits, appropriations and more) to cover the current level of student enrolment.  The plan offers no account of persistence - except vague suggestions that the proposal would set in motion government action/policy that would encourage institutions to ensure students complete on time – and no account of increased enrollment.  [I will explain exactly how PSA deals with these.] 

F2CO is not a disruptive innovation, but a sustaining one.  That is, it maintains institutions, the per student aid and the appropriations funding they receive for operations, capital expansion, etc.  This means there is no cost reduction - beyond the yet to be determined reduction in administration and bureaucracy of the first two years due to universalization.  Further if as F2CO expects enrollment and persistence do go up then even more public funding would be required (pg.25), while the plan ignores the expense of repairing the existing infrastructure which has been severely neglected by institutions as part of their desperate strategic response to reduced public funding.

The plan also fails to introduce new money for per student funding - though it clearly asks for an increase in public funding.  With undetermined savings in for first two years, no plan for new funding, required expansion of staff/space and a severe neglect in necessary infrastructure repairs, it is not clear how F2CO will deal with increases in enrollment and persistence rates that, as Goldrick-Rab notes, will result in declining per student funding over time.  [I will show how PSA reduces costs, introduces new money (without asking for it from the public) and either avoids the need for repairs or provides the money necessary to carry them out (without asking for it form the public).]

Further, relying on the institutional model F2CO is inflexible where market demand expands or contracts (in terms of either volume or diversity).  [PSA is a flexible model with respect to market demand.]

Finally, F2CO is not a comprehensive reform of higher education.  For instance, though it is not an aim of F2CO the plan does not address other ills of higher education such as faculty labour exploitation – though it seems to rely on and expand the status quo - which obviously affects the quality of education students receive, especially those Goldrick-Rab describes as “expensive to serve low-income and marginalized.”  F2CO is explicit in its concern for the quality of education students receive, but cannot hope to achieve this aim without addressing the serious labour problem in higher education – from TAs/RAs to adjuncts. [PSA tackles these ills head on and so is a more comprehensive proposal.]

2. (Pg.18) The current means-tested system demands nothing from colleges and universities in terms of program quality, beyond the limited demands of accreditors. By investing in a universal system, the federal government can engage states and institutions in a conversation about what is required to ensure that students begin and complete a quality college education. This is only appropriate in the public sector and thus it is where the effort will focus: F2CO will prioritize providers with the explicit, government-backed mandate to serve the public good.

PSA is a universal system as well but uses student vouchers, not institutional appropriations.  Though the means of dispersing government funds for HE is not finalized in PSA, the initial idea is to employ a voucher system (like the GI Bill praised by F2CO, pg.8) that provides students with funding for the degree duration (2 and 4 years) plus one additional year.  PSA also allows for any number of creative measures that might encourage completion, but these measures would be applied to students and academic service providers, not institutions.  This is because PSA is meant to replace institutions as the principal service providers with private professional academic practices.  This does not mean the public investment and interest in these institutions is lost.  Nor does it mean that they need be stripped and solid for scrap.  Further, because PSA requires objective evaluation of student work (e.g., essays, tests, projects, etc.) there are available quality assurance measures well beyond any that the self-reports of accreditation can hope to provide.

3. (Pg.18) Means-tested programs require paperwork and administrative activities designed to ensure compliance with targeting that is not required of universal programs. A move to F2CO would transform Federal Student Aid and financial aid offices across the country from gatekeepers of limited resources to supporters and facilitators of all college students’ success.

PSA dramatically reduces government bureaucracy and institutional administration, while it safe guards the quality and success of college students.  All students would receive vouchers for their education, eliminating the paperwork and administrative activities designed to ensure compliance under means-tested programs.  PSA would have the same transformative effects of support and facilitation though it would do so through a government legislated professional social contract that places support and facilitation in the hands of a professional society of academics – as is done for the legal, medical, or engineering services society requires.  This is frontline support and facilitation of higher education and students that is directly tied to personal income of academics in private practice – not institutional intermediaries.  Traditionally the introduction of professions allows government to reduce its hands-on responsibility for the provision of services that would otherwise cost them labour and money to oversee.  It is worth noting that the American Bar Association manages to support and facilitate the legal services of some 500,000 attorneys on a budget of $200 million per year and a staff of 2000.  This is a fraction of the labour and expense now used by institutions alone to do the same for academics (faculty), never mind the government bureaucracy involved.  As a means to reducing administrative and bureaucratic costs PSA bets F2CO hands down, since the only direct savings offered by F2CO is a yet to be determined reduction in the administrative and bureaucratic costs during only the first two years of universal coverage - after which these costs are reintroduced through means-tested aid mechanisms. 

4. (Pg.19) [F2CO] responds directly to low- and middle-income students’ experiences and college goals in a variety of ways, from their concerns about the consequences of loan-borrowing, to their greater need for stable sources of support, to their experiences in unwelcoming institutions, to their stated preferences for college locations (student surveys indicate that the majority of students are increasingly interested in attending a public college or university in their home state, along with their plans to work at least part-time while in school) (College Board and Art & Science Group, 2012)

PSA offers these same responses, though it does not require (as part of the proposal or out of financial necessity) that students work while in school.  Students “plan to work” while in school because they cannot afford to go to school otherwise.  I was in that category, working full-time while I went to school full-time for my undergraduate degree.  While in my Masters I started, owned and operated my own business.  During my PhD I continued my business and also taught a full-time course load at university.  These were done out of financial necessity to fund my studies.  I know a thing or two about being a working student.  PSA does not require publicly funded work-programs to provide free higher education that is accessed at restricted campus locations.  This is because PSA reduces the total cost of higher education service by 50-75% and private academic practices are integrated with the existing community infrastructure, as one finds legal, medical and accounting services spread all over a community – from small towns to urban centers.  Think also of the freedom this gives academics to remain in their communities and serve them, rather than move to other discrete locations (in or out of state) in order to gain institutional employment.  Academics have personal lives too that are often tortured by the current institutional model that F2CO maintains.

5. (Pg.19) The F2CO begins with a simple message to every American interested in pursuing education after high school: If you complete a high school degree, you can obtain a 13th and 14th year of education for free in exchange for a modest amount of work while attending school.

“Free” as defined by F2CO means that students will not face any costs for tuition, fees, books or supplies, and will receive a stipend and guaranteed employment at a living wage to cover their living expenses. Unsubsidized, dischargeable loans of a small amount will also be available for those who need them.

PSA begins with a similar message, except that it offers free education for the duration of 2 and 4-year programs (i.e., Associates or Bachelor degrees).  In fact, PSA can provide free graduate education.  And it can do this without the requirement that students work while they study or the public ante up more funding.

6. (Pg.20) The federal government will cover the largest fraction of the bill, providing grants to institutions for allowable expenses required to deliver a high-quality postsecondary education.  In exchange for these resources, institutions will have to commit to charging students no tuition or fees, driving the sticker price to zero.

If one of the claims of F2CO is that it reduces administrative and bureaucratic costs then it is second to PSA.  The moment federal money is provided to institutions “for allowable expenses required to deliver a high-quality postsecondary education” oversight of what is an “allowable expense” and “high-quality education” become serious points of measure and enforcement.  In contrast, PSA leaves the expensing of service to the individual practitioner (with support from professional society) and the quality is determined through objective crowd-sourced evaluation of student performance.  Of course under PSA the success or failure of students is the success or failure of academic practices, because the outcome of such objective evaluation is made public by the professional society.  In the end, academics who can provide good service will continue in the profession, while those whose public record is subpar will fade out (or be inspired to seek professional development).  The oversight required to achieve this is a fraction of what would be required by institutions and governments to compile data and compose reports on “allowable expenses” and “high-quality education” under F2CO.  Again, the problem is that F2CO, like all other innovations in higher education (except PSA), maintains the unnecessary, intermediary role of institutions.

7. (Pg.20) With current resources, described in the next section, we expect that the government can commit to funding at least $9,500 per full-time-equivalent student, on average.

PSA can operate on the current average advertised tuition alone, which according to the College Board is around $8,600.  It is important to understand what this means: Dividing $8600 by 5 full credit courses is around $1700 per course.  Academics can operate a private practice on this pricing, which does not include other expected sources of practice revenue such as research grants, ROIs, consultation fees, publication royalties, and other sources typically found at institutions.  To be clear, unlike F2CO, this means that no appropriations for institutional operations or capital maintenance and new construction are required.  This cuts the total cost to the public and students by 50-75%.  This creates a new playing field.  With this sort of financial liberation free higher education at all levels is a real possibility.  It is also important to note that this only mentions the cost-savings to the public and students.  I have not yet mentioned the new money (revenue) PSA can generate for the state and local communities (see #11).

8. (Pg.21) The rising cost of books and supplies is an often hidden burden shouldered by students. In F2CO, state governments will be responsible for covering these costs. This will provide states with an additional incentive to ensure that costs are kept as low as possible. Having saved resources currently appropriated to public institutions for tuition and fees, states will be fiscally equipped to do this.

The incentive to keep costs low in PSA is anchored in the frontline private academic practice which sets a completely different mind set from the one found in a F2CO system where money is allocated by the state to institutions.  Unlike the funding of institutions a PSA practice has no incentive to spend all the money it collects each year in order to ensure its state appropriations are not reduced the next year - it receives no such appropriations.  This would be foolish behaviour in a private practice, but prudent for government funded institutions that want to maintain their budgets from year-to-year.  With the savings from operations and capital construction/repair and dramatic reduction in admin/bureaucracy  - let alone the yet to be discussed new revenue – PSA allows the public purse to easily cover the cost of books and supplies along with the cost of living (without requiring that students work).

9. (Pg.22) In order to participate in the F2CO program, which will be optional and available only to public institutions, schools must commit to either an open-door admissions policy, or to providing data to assess the success of all students admitted under a selective admissions policy. In addition, if housing is provided on campus, that housing must be accessible to F2CO students and therefore cannot exceed the costs of affordable housing standards in the local area. Finally, institutions must be part of a state that participates in the F2CO. In order to participate, states must provide the funding contributions described above, agree to revised accreditation standards intended to ensure that the federal contribution to postsecondary education is well-spent, and ensure that pathways to education beyond the 14th year are as smooth as possible.  Critically, there will be no need for paperwork on the part of students in the F2CO model and costs will be adjusted not according to the needs of institutions of higher education, but according to changes in the economy.

This is a strange distinction between the reporting requirements of selective and open admissions.  Does F2CO not care about the success rates for students of open admissions?  Under PSA student success is academic (practice) success and so is their failure.  Whether a practice has a specialization such as “low-income and marginal” students or an open policy – as determined by professional prerogative, market forces and more flexible revision – the data of student success is determined objectively and is a matter of public record.  We want to know who is doing a good job of educating, whether the admissions are open or selective.  The best way to do that is through objective evaluation – something that the current intuitional model for higher education acknowledges in its graduate evaluation practices but not surprisingly ignores/avoids at the undergraduate level.  Since institutions are at best optional under PSA, housing is converted to a community resource issue that can be managed through local supply and consumer power/reporting.  In fact, existing institutions might shift their focus to such services (and those services sought by academics in private practice), kept reasonably priced by the fact that these institutions were constructed with public money and so remain a public interest.  PSA also requires (radically) revised accreditation, which is essentially a license to practice higher education issued to universities/colleges by universities/colleges.  Under PSA government contribution is given directly to students (not institutions) who use public data on practice performance (and other metrics) to decide where they spend their education funding.  Practices that do not perform well will not be chosen by students for service (and so will not receive government monies through student consumption).  The threat of large-scale degree milling is substantially reduced under PSA - and so not in need of the expensive policing measures required under F2CO - because of objective crowd-evaluation and the small scale of private academic practices.  The voucher system of PSA is likewise adjusted according the economy.

10. (Pg.23) Administrative bureaucracy will be further reduced by nudges that encourage institutions to admit all applicants and eliminate the need to creatively assemble financial aid packages for students, delineating between those who do and do not qualify, or who are and are not deserving of institutional support.

Though notice under F2CO that the “those who do and do not qualify” test is applied to institutions throughout the 2-4 years of study and reintroduced after the first two years of universal coverage - all requiring considerable administrative bureaucracy.  Further, such an approach seems prone to resistance and contention from the institutions, while it depends on the mutable nature of government policy and disposition.  What would be a nudge and one that is effective?  When party power shifts will the same nudges remain or will new ones have to be introduced?  This would likely take considerable administrative bureaucracy to determine and enforce – so long as the government atmosphere even subscribes to the practice.  PSA avoids all this.  There is no need for government nudge policies or oversight of the quality of education purchased by public funds because the well-known, natural forces and mechanisms of operating a private service practice/business achieve this in combination with a public record of objective evaluation outcomes.  F2CO cannot compete with PSA where reduction in (institutional) administration and (government) bureaucracy are concerned.  This is one of the main advantages the professional social contract offers the public.

11. (Pg.23) Redirecting all federal higher education grants (~$50 billion) and tax benefits (~$32 billion), as well as current allocations for education and training in the Workforce Investment Act (~$3 billion) to cover the allowable tuition costs described provides the immediate basis of support for F2CO. The average per-student allocation could range from $8,500 to $10,600 with no increase in federal spending. The work-study program will be maintained to support students’ living costs and should also be expanded. Current state (~$80 billion) and local government (~$9 billion) appropriations will be transferred into covering the costs of living stipends. Direct loans (~$40 billion) will also be maintained to cover additional living expenses.

This returns to the twitter criticism Goldrick-Rab levels against PSA, the issue of increased enrolment and persistence.  F2CO offers no response either, though it is clear the plan taps out the currently available monies from all levels of government and asks for more.  If 2 years of free colleges attracts more students, from where is the money necessary to cover the increase enrolment to come?  There will indeed be a need for increase in federal and other levels of spending.  The same is true for persistence.  In this regard the criticism applies to both reform model.  However, PSA has several answers that F2CO does not: 1) It offers far greater reduction in administration/bureaucracy costs; 2) It offers a 50-75% reduction in the total costs of providing higher education (e.g., no appropriations for operations, capital expansion, etc.); and 3) It increases a now marginal but highly desirable source of government revenue – non-resident students (including international and interstate).  The current institutional model assumed by F2CO relies on deteriorating infrastructure that is insufficient to accommodate a substantial increase in international student enrolment and would require an infusion of more government funding for correction.  The economic (not to mention social/cultural) benefits of international students to a region are well documented and substantial.  Because PSA does not rely on the institutional model for provision of higher education but rather independent practice that relies on local community infrastructure, expansion of this lucrative source of monetary and cultural revenue does not require (additional) government subsidy (though it might be wise to encourage it through policy and legislation).  Because PSA can offer higher education service for 50-75% less than what international students now pay (which is the full unsubsidized cost of the institutional model) there would be a substantial increase in international student enrollment.  The revenue this generates in taxes and local commerce would help offset the expense of universally free education under PSA.  F2CO cannot hope to achieve this using the institutional model and any how appears to have no response to increased enrolment and persistence, beyond the rallying cry that now is the time to reinvest in higher education...

[Update May 3rd: In an interview with Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television at 2:12 SGR is asked about increases in enrollment and her response is that it would be irresponsible not to consider the capacity of the institutional model to accommodate the inevitable increase in enrollment.  She says there, "is a lot of capacity already in the public sector right now...many of our institutions have unfilled seats..."  

She should inform the state of California of this, which last year had over 500,000 students who could otherwise attend college on waiting lists to do so because there is not the capacity in the that state's institutions to accommodate them.  If the capacity exists - and this necessarily includes essential infrastructure repairs and faculty that actually provide the education - then I should like to see her evidence of this.]

12. (Pg.24) Importantly, F2CO supports two years of education at any public college or university, not only at community colleges. While making two years of college free does not immediately solve the affordability problem for those pursuing 4-year degrees, it will fundamentally shift the national conversation, greatly broaden the perception and people’s experiences that real educational opportunities are provided to all, and create a simpler mechanism for targeting aid for 4-year degrees. It is not financially feasible to provide bachelor’s degrees for free without a significant increase in public funding for higher education. A need-based grant system can be established for the third and fourth years of college for F2CO students who qualify by establishing a record of success during their first two years of college, perhaps drawing largely on institutional and private scholarships. Thus, funds for a four-year degree could be easily targeted to all of the neediest students who have already proven their academic capabilities, assuring the best use of public investment in four-year degrees.

My tweet to Goldrick-Rab was inspired by her claim that, “It is not financially feasible to provide bachelor’s degrees for free without a significant increase in public funding for higher education.”  I hope it is clearer now that this is true under F2CO, but not under PSA.  PSA can provide free education at universities or colleges and presents a paradigm shift that truly does “fundamentally shift conversation, greatly broaden the perception and people’s experiences that real educational opportunities are provided to all” – a recognized basic human right ratified by the united States.  In doing so it does not require the administration and bureaucracy that F2CO does to oversee a need-based grant system for the third and fourth year of study.

It is also worth mentioning that PSA is a low-cost, high-quality model that corrects for the labour exploitation that F2CO would rely on and can be adopted (where politically acceptable) by regions of the world that do not already have the billions invested in higher education finance that the US does and F2CO relies on.  As far as I can see, PSA is superior to F2CO as a model for higher education reform.

13. (Pg.25) That does not mean, however, that advance planning should not take place to address the complications that massification will bring to the system. Institutions must be sufficiently staffed and space available for this effort; however, there is no better time in the history of our country to undertake this expansion.  There is a large pool of un- or underemployed post-baccalaureate graduates who would gladly participate in this expansion as instructors and faculty members. Infrastructure development will fuel employment at a time when jobs are desperately needed. And all of these efforts can draw on cutting edge practices of sustainability, participation, and democracy (e.g., green buildings and communities fully engaged in planning processes).

The tweet criticism is relevant here again.  As I have already noted, it is clear F2CO demands government money beyond its present level of commitment and PSA does not.  But consider this further point.  If PSA was in operation then these existing institutional resources (staff and facilities) would likely be hired by private academic practices, converting publicly subsidized institutions into institutions that operate on revenue generated from providing services to private academic practices (and their students).  This would force these institutions to focus missions on their proper function as facilitators of education services offered by academics and make them more economically viable.

I also note that PSA does not require the exploitive use of any staff or faculty – from TAs/RAs to academics – who are now un- and underemployed because the institutional model endorsed by F2CO is not sustainable.  It is obviously true that increased investment in the institutional model would improve many things, including the working/material conditions of labour.  But surely it is equally obvious this is not going to happen (at a sufficient level) and so is not to be relied upon in the construction of reform model for higher education – better times in the history of our country not withstanding.  Massification can be accommodated by PSA without exploitation, MOOCs, reduction in quality, or the need of all the current government contribution let alone increased contribution, while it offers greater flexibility in terms of market demand and education innovation.

[Update May 3rd:  In an interview with Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television at 6:15 SGR is asked what the response from the various levels of government has been to the F2CO proposal.  Her response is that she has heard, "primarily from policy-makers at the local and state levels," and they are "afraid that they can't wait for the federal government here and they would like to find ways to begin moving forward at their own level...[but] they will not be able to cover the living expenses...[and conversations at the federal level] allow [F2CO] to be a possibility in say the next 10-20 years."

The trouble with F2CO is that it endorses the continued use of the expensive institutional model for higher education.  The appropriations necessary for operations, repairs and expansion of the universities and colleges of this model prohibit states from initiating action on their own to introduce free higher education independently of federal funding.  PSA does not have this impediment since it does not require these institutions to provide higher education and so reduces the total cost by 50-75%, making independent state action a real possibility - and not in 10-20 years once the federal government is (perhaps) coaxed on board.]

14. (Pg.26) The movement to provide some form of postsecondary education for free is well underway. Since Fall 2013, community and technical college education has been provided tuition-free to students in Nashville, Tennessee (Fingeroot, 2013). In Mississippi, Republican state legislator Gene Alday is pushing legislation that would make community college tuition free for more than 75,000 students (Turner, 2014). Democratic legislator Mark Hass is pursuing a similar law in Oregon (Benham, 2013). Over the past decade, numerous well-known politicians, including former U.S. Senator and presidential aspirant John Edwards and current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, have voiced similar ambitions. Education activist Robert Samuels (2013) has an excellent new book out called Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free.

I have only begun to look at these other free education models, but because they, like F2CO, also rely on/maintain the institutional model I do not expect much from them. I suspect that they will suffer from the same shortcomings as F2CO.  I have looked at Samuels reasoning and it certainly suffers from the same faults I identify in F2CO.  I have said as much to him as well – with no reply.  I hope to receive more from Goldrick-Rab and Kendall…


  1. "[Update, April 20th: For my efforts to improve the state of higher education and my attempt to engage in open, intellectually honest dialogue on F2CO I was Twitter-blocked by Sara Goldrick-Rab.] '

    Sara has this reputation. Anyone that does not acknowledge her to be wonderful is beneath her comptempt.

    1. Must make for a charmed existence...though one tested these days by the open channels of information and communication that are available to us. Cheers.