Sara Goldrick-Rab  (copy)

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at UW-Madison.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to extend a freeze on tuition at University of Wisconsin campuses misses the point, says UW-Madison associate professor Sara Goldrick-Rab: College is already too expensive for many families.

And Goldrick-Rab has a revolutionary idea to remedy that situation.

Use federal and state money now spent on an inefficient and inequitable financial aid system to provide free, to all qualified students, two years of education at any public university, college or community or technical college, argue Goldrick-Rab and associate professor Nancy Kendall.

“Outside of the top 25 percent of the income distribution, students all over the country now have to borrow or spend the equivalent of at least 15 percent of their family’s income for each year of post-secondary education, after taking all grants into account. For those seeking to spend those years at a four-year institution, borrowing or spending the equivalent of at least 25 percent of annual income is required,” Goldrick-Rab and Kendall write in a paper outlining their proposal.

Higher college costs, lower-paying part-time work and increasing reliance on loans means many students and their families rack up debt, while the pressure of paying for school means students are less likely to do well and more likely to drop out, say the authors of “Free Two Year College Option (F2CO): Redefining College Affordability.”

By diverting the $80 billion a year the federal government spends now on financial aid and some $35 billion in tax benefits and workforce training, the per student allocation could reach $8,500 to $10,600 with no additional federal spending, say Goldrick-Rab and Kendall. An additional $89 billion in state and local money, freed up by the new uses of federal funding, could be spent on living expenses, textbooks and supplies, they say.

Students would be guaranteed living wage work-study jobs, enabling them to cover unmet costs by working “modestly and on-campus,” 15 hours a week, Goldrick-Rab points out.

The proposed system, to which states would buy-in to receive federal money, ensures continued state funding of higher education and ends subsidies to private institutions, which now receive aid money disproportionate to the number of students served, she said.

For example, while 29 percent of undergraduate enrollment was in the private sector in 2012-2013, private schools received 35 percent of all Pell Grants, 49 percent of Supplementary Education Opportunity grants, and 47 percent of work-study funds — approximately $18 billion in total, the authors of the study said.

A need based system, perhaps drawing largely on institutional and private scholarships, could be developed to support students who have already established a record of success for their final two years of college

The system, the authors assert, would assure the best use of public investment in four-year degrees.

A move to a broader-based policy that makes support available to all Americans in equitable ways has greater potential to generate long-lasting benefits as generations of successful college graduates become involved participants in their nation’s future, Goldrick-Rab and Kendall conclude.

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Walker grabbed headlines last week when, reacting to news of $1 billion fund balances at UW System institutions for the second year running, he proposed what would be a second freeze on tuition for the university system.

The idea was quickly panned as unsustainable.

In addition to the proposed federally based system to make college free to students, some states are beginning to act independently.

Goldrick-Rab suggested Walker look to Oregon, which is examining the feasibility of making community college free.

And the Tennessee legislature sent to the governor’s desk a bill that will make tuition free for all high school graduates who go to two-year colleges.

This article was changed to refer to a different program in the state of Oregon.