Free College Now!

Ideas and Issues

May 22, 2021

Pearl River

Talking to Michelle Miller-Adams on Wade’s World, you get the notion that the drive to reduce the trillion-dollar student debt deficit and the fight for free higher education are welded together at the hip.  Miller-Adams is a senior research at the Upjohn Institute and a political science professor at Grand Valley State College, both of which are located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The fact that Kalamazoo has been ground-zero in the development of place-based educational alternatives makes it no coincidence that she has written a new book, The Path to Free College: In Pursuit of Access, Equity, and Prosperity.

Various anonymous donors began the innovative Promise program offering a free ride to any higher-ed option in Michigan, which has now, in one form or fashion, spread to 200 other communities in the United States. Talking to her, it seems natural for her to take a firsthand examination of that movement and chart whether or not it is following the road to free college in the same way that other movements helped get us the “common school” or free elementary school, and then, much later, free public high schools.

Miller-Adams believes there are three major decisions that place-based promise-type communities need to make. The first is which students should benefit, essentially whether the money is awarded universally or by merit. The second is where the program will financially assist students to study?

All Michigan like Kalamazoo or anywhere like El Dorado, Arkansas, which she believes may be the gold standard program, or at least has been based on Murphy Oil’s adoption of the program, even though the future is less clear now that Murphy is moving its headquarters to Texas. Finally, the question revolves around the financial capacity of the award and whether the money comes before the federal Pell grants or other scholarships or just helps with the “last mile” to defray other expenses and some of the remainder, which is the design of the vast majority of Promise programs.

We quibbled over her tendency to call these corporate and donor-driven programs “grassroots” no matter who they really served, but that was more semantics. She means locally community-based and funded, rather than driven from below by low-and-moderate citizens, but I get her point. The other thing we danced around a bit on was whether the Promise place-based systems were corporate workarounds for no longer investing in worker training and part of the neoliberal push to make everything an individual’s responsibility rather than government or industry’s role. She defended the programs, but in saying that the vast majority of the programs were about workforce development it was clear that she also got my point.

On the issue of free higher education for everyone, Miller-Adams and I were totally aligned. The combination of life and future crushing student debt, with a debate politically about whether and how much of it can be relieved, nestles tightly with the drive for free higher education for all, as Senator Bernie Sanders advocated and even President Biden included in some of the campaign. She’s practical though as she looks forward. Counting the votes, she believes we should try to lock down free community college at the two-year level now and try to stretch out for the four-year later. She made a critical point about the fact that her research on the various Promise programs finds that they are nonpartisan with wide buy-in, but the programs in Tennessee and a number of other states tend to be bipartisan, because they are more flavored with workforce developments and general business support.

Add in the fact that the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is an English professor at a Delaware community college and a longtime advocate, and all of the arguments favor going hard on free community college in this brief window, when the goal is so near our grasp politically.