College Access Counseling

My firm, College Access Counseling, Ltd., works with adults and organizations who counsel and support first-generation and minority students on the way to college. I teach the ins and outs of the college process, helping them build social and cultural capital for their students. Click here for more information. I also write for NACAC's blog, Admitted. You can read my entries as well as some of my colleagues', here. Click here to read one of my entries in the New York Times's blog, The Choice.

April 16, 2008

Is Free Tuition Really Free?

I know you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth (and surely there's a 21st century version of that around somewhere...), and I support colleges' and universities' using more of their endowments to ease the financial burden on families with low incomes. In fact, I work with first-generation and underserved students, so anything that eases their way to college I support. But I wonder about the implications of a "free" college education: By not asking a student or family to make any financial commitment to a college education, how will that change the dynamic between them and the college or university? And how will it affect the way a student values that education?

I've worked with the Daniel Murphy Foundation here in Chicago for a number of years. They help talented 8th graders from needy families attend private schools here and elsewhere by providing a scholarship and by getting the host schools to kick in most of the resrt of the tuition. But no matter how financially needy the family is, they are asked to contribute something to their child's education. This seems proper to me because it asks the family to back up its generalized support of its son or daughter with hard cold cash, a measure of its commitment. It's a commonplace that we value most what we pay for, and I think that applies here, too.

One might say that disadvantaged families are already in enough of an economic bind but I'm not talking about asking for anything that the family can't handle. The DMSF pegs its request of the family to income and families are able to pay it. It's not about the money; it's about the commitment. Since most of the colleges and universities eliminating loans and so on are in the elite crowd, perhaps their status automatically generates commitment from the families, but I think if someone comes up to you and hands you a diamond for free, you're going to wonder about whether it's stolen or a cubic zirconium. Without a price tag it's hard to gauge the value of the item. And I don't think it's unfair to ask students to shoulder some kind of debt if they really want the kind of education that a college can give. Again, not anything crushing (save that for law school or med school) but enough to keep their eyes on the academic prize.

My other reservation about the rush to give away the store is that it only benefits a handful of students at a time and only at the very point of entry to college. All that money might be better used to strengthen the educational prospects of more students from disadvantaged backgrounds sooner, so there might be a greater number of first generation and underserved students in the application pool. Right now, colleges' and universities' largesse is passive, not active: It rewards those who have made it through the American educational system but hasn't actively affected it. In a sense it validates a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest instead of attacking many of the inequities of the system at their root.

The economic might of the Harvards, Yales, Amhersts, and so on might be better used to inject life and hope into needy schools starting at 9th grade or even earlier, helping them build strong foundations for their students as they prepare for college. By taking a more active role in education, by considering themselves part of a K-16 educational continuum rather than the beneficiaries of the results of "educational selection," colleges and universities might have a much greater and more significant effect on the education of America's least served but not undertalented students. So two cheers for spending more of their endowments, but a third cheer in reserve for when colleges and universities really take up the task of improving American education where it needs it the most.

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Blog Archive

Books About College, Teens, and American Culture

  • A History of American Higher Education
  • A Hope in the Unseen
  • Admission
  • Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
  • African Americans and College Choice
  • Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
  • Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men
  • Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
  • Campus Life
  • Class
  • College Access & Opportunity Guide
  • College Admissions and the Public Interest
  • College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family
  • College Gold: The Step by Step Guide for Paying for College
  • College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready
  • College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy
  • Colleges that Change Lives
  • Consumed
  • Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
  • Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
  • First in the Family
  • Fiske Guide to Colleges
  • Going to College: How Social, Economic, and Educational Factors Influence the Decisions Students Make
  • Harvard, Schmarvard
  • Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private & Social Benefits of Higher Education
  • Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood
  • I Am Charlotte Simmons
  • Increasing Access to College:
  • Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admission and Beyond
  • Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions
  • Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered America
  • Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
  • Looking Beyond the Ivy League
  • Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions
  • Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
  • Race and Class Matters at an Elite College
  • Rescuing Your Teenager From Depression
  • Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education
  • Sophomore Guide to College & Career: Preparing for life After High School
  • Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It
  • Status Anxiety
  • Taking Time Off
  • Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
  • The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
  • The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive & Reconnect with Their Fathers
  • The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
  • The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
  • The Culture of Narcissism
  • The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
  • The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in American Life
  • The Little College Handbook: A First Generation's Guide to Getting in and Staying In
  • The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College
  • The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfull a Dream
  • The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life
  • The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
  • The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids
  • The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
  • The Secret Lives of Overachievers
  • The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing
  • Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens