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More Flavors of Free College

With about 10 days until the presidential election, higher ed is definitely not at the forefront of any policy debate. But a Biden victory — if paired with a Democratic Senate — could mean tons of new attention for higher ed: a push for a big Pell Grant increase, student-debt reforms, and perhaps a national free-college plan.

As we’ve talked about before, “free college” fits nicely on a bumper sticker but means so many different things. Maybe it’s filling in the financial-aid gap for two years at a community-college. Maybe we’re talking about all public colleges for people who earn less than $125,000. Maybe it’s just recent high-school grads. Maybe it’s everyone.

Here’s a new idea, though. Could our Year of Zoom change the conversation around online education and its role in federally supported free college? That’s the provocative idea from Suzanne Kahn, director of education, jobs and worker power at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank.

“If ever there was a moment, it is now for the federal government to play a role in creating a more centralized set of online courses,” she told MarketWatch earlier this month.

Here was the idea she outlined:

  1. The government pays for colleges to develop high-quality, basic courses as part of a national database.
  2. Government then offers the courses for free.
  3. Colleges must accept the credits if they want to receive federal financial aid.

A new federally-supported database of thousands of free or low-cost college courses sounds unlikely. (That MarketWatch piece acknowledges no policymakers are working on such a thing.) But would it be any more radical than doubling the Pell Grant or cutting income-based student loan payments from 10 percent to 5 percent? Both of those are part of the Biden/Harris higher ed plan. What’s another radical proposal to add to the pile?

Also on the free-college front this week, The Education Trust is out with an update to its 2018 report about state-based free college programs. A few highlights:

  • Eight states have added free college programs over the last three years.
  • Most states still focus just on tuition — not all the other costs of going to college, from books to living expenses.
  • Only a third of the states offer four years of tuition and include a bachelor’s degree.

Adults, returning students, undocumented students and the formerly incarcerated are all often cut out of these programs, the report found.

Tiffany Jones, who directs higher ed policy at Ed Trust, pointed at the new Washington State program as a model, but isn’t as excited by some of the others:

“I remain concerned that too many states offer a ‘light’ version of free college that’s heavy on rhetoric while excluding the very students who have the greatest financial need and who have the most to gain from higher education.”

— Scott Smallwood

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Our New Pittsburgh Reporter

Naomi Harris

We’re thrilled to welcome Naomi Harris, who will be covering higher ed with us in Pittsburgh through our partnership with PublicSource. Naomi has been covering education as a reporter for The Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, where she’s focused on uncovering systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities in the school system, including hate incidents, discrimination, and racism in schools. A graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, Naomi also has written for The DC Line and the Washington Afro-American newspaper. Her first day will be Nov. 9.

One thing that stands out about Naomi is her curiosity. So it came as little surprise when she told us her parents, at one point, resorted to creating a “3 Questions a Day” rule to manage the volume of inquiry. Now, more than ever, she says, local journalism matters, and she’s excited to deepen coverage of higher ed in Pittsburgh. She calls local reporting the “heart of communities,” work that holds the powerful accountable and elevates the voices of the public.

And, of course, work that allows her to ask the tough questions.

Texas Higher Ed Symposium

Over the next week The Texas Tribune will be holding a higher education symposium, with online conversations each day over lunch to explore the impact of our public-health crisis and the subsequent economic collapse. Open Campus is providing media support for part of the event.

Sara will be moderating a conversation on Monday, Oct. 26, with Jacob Fraire, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, and Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University. We’ll be talking about serving students in need during the pandemic. Register for the symposium here.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

• The Trump administration has proposed strict new time limits on how long international students can study in the United States. Karin Fischer waded through the tens of thousands of public comments on the plan so far, sharing her observations in latitude(s) this week.

One thing that struck her: Few people from outside of higher ed weighed in. She found isolated examples, such as the college town landlord who wrote to express his concern that the proposal would cause him to lose a lot of money. But, Karin reported, there were few comments from employers, local governments, and other outside groups.

That matters, Karin writes, because in other instances (this summer, for example, when the government quickly reversed a policy change on remote learning) international students and colleges have benefitted from the support of a broader coalition.

• In Next this week, Jeff Selingo dives further into what we know about this fall’s enrollment trends and what that might mean for next year’s class.

The latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that colleges in 42 states saw declines in their enrollments, with the Midwest reporting the biggest drop (of nearly 6 percent). Overall, undergraduate enrollment was about 4 percent lower than last year, with community colleges continuing to suffer the most, with declines of more than 9 percent.

Here’s what Jeff predicts these trends could mean for this year’s seniors:

  • The loss of so many first-time students this fall will mean a smaller sophomore class next fall on many campuses. As a result, Jeff says, many colleges will look to make up that shortfall with a larger-than-usual freshman class next year.
  • However, the pandemic may have disrupted the statistical models colleges use to predict who will actually show up. So, Jeff says, look for colleges to accept more students from high schools familiar to them, where enrollment rates have been reliable. That could help colleges hedge their bets amid all the uncertainty.


Amid Wisconsin Coronavirus Outbreak, Researchers Explore Link Between College Cases, Nursing Home Deaths
Mayor Tim Kabat was already on edge as thousands of students returned to La Crosse, Wis., to resume classes this fall at the city’s three colleges. When he saw young people packing downtown bars and restaurants in September, crowded closely and often unmasked, the longtime mayor’s worry turned to dread. (

How Career and Technical Education Shuts Out Black and Latino Students from High-Paying Professions
A Hechinger Report/Associated Press analysis of career and technical education data reveals deep racial disparities. (

Why Did Colleges Reopen During the Pandemic?
The pandemic has revealed that higher education was never about education.

Keep in Touch

Interested in covering higher education? Sign up for our job alerts, add yourself to our talent pool, and see our latest openings with partner newsrooms on our Jobs page. Our partners are currently hiring in El Paso and Mississippi.

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