THE BLOG
10/12/2016 01:51 pm ET

This is How to Make Higher Education Affordable for Everyone

What are some things we can do to make college more affordable to everyone? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, on Quora.

In order to make college more affordable for everyone, we first have to make this issue a priority. Right now, it really isn't one. Yes, there's talk about how it matters, but people aren't making it a primary voting issue. If you care about whether college is affordable, you can't simply denigrate colleges for spending money, or open a 529 account. You need to get up to speed on the problem and start electing people who will do something about it.

In Paying the Price, I propose a plan called "first degree for free." This is a slightly recast version of another proposal I first made with Nancy Kendall in 2014. The premise is simple: fund public colleges and universities and hold them accountable for the allocation of those resources, such that the associate degree is delivered free of charge. That means no tuition, no charge for books and supplies, subsidized transportation, housing, and food options, and a work program for those who need the extra money. I focus on the associate degree because it's the first major post-secondary degree of value, and so many people aren't crossing the finish line to complete it. While the bachelor's degree is even more valuable, those who get that far are relatively advantaged--so I think that just as we made elementary school free before high school, we should make the associate degree free (and get that accomplished) before we work on the bachelor's degree.

Of course, "free" is the price and not the cost of doing this work. In the earlier proposal, I explain that while we could pay for this by raising taxes on some people, we don't have to. We are currently focusing on choice over affordability by devoting billions of tax dollars to supporting private for-profit and non-profit colleges and universities, from whom we can demand little accountability. We could decide to alter that decision, which we have lived with for fifty years, and focus spending in the next fifty years on the public sector. If we did that, we could make the first degree for free available tomorrow, with virtually no new spending.

Now, that's a big proposal, so here are five alternative smaller ideas, many of which are expanded upon in my book:

  1. Push state legislatures to fund tuition freezes. Unfunded freezes hurt students and starve public colleges and universities of the resources required to help students finish college on time, driving up their time-to-degree and their bills. But funded freezes help ensure that educational quality remains high, while students spend less of their hard-earned money on tuition.
  2. Fix the federal work-study program. Everyone likes it, many people qualify for it, but it's horribly underfunded and badly allocated.
  3. Protest unaffordable housing on and near college campuses and advocate for mixed-income options that are focused on value.
  4. Support the open educational resources movement to drive down the need for expensive books and other learning materials.
  5. Help students not only apply for financial aid but also for any other supportive services they might qualify for (e.g. food stamps).

This question originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

More questions:​

CONVERSATIONS