National Free College? Interview with Matthew Chingos

Dan:                 Matthew Chingos is Vice President for Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. Chingos leads a team of scholars who undertake policy-relevant research on issues from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary education and create tools such as Urban’s Education Data Portal. Chingos is coauthor of Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt and Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. He has testified before Congress and his work has been featured in media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio. Before joining Urban, Chingos was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He received a BA in government and economics and a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University. Dr. Chingos, welcome to the podcast.

Chingos:           Thank you for having me.

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Dan:                 I appreciate your being here. And I’d like to begin by letting the listeners know what originally put us on to you, which was a fascinating editorial that you published in the New York Times called “50 Reasons the Idea of Free College is Misunderstood.” A hint, you don’t actually give a list of 50 reasons. (laughs) You’re actually talking about how the United States has no national system of higher education and each of the States works somewhat differently. You say that overlooking this basic fact risks creating a policy that could make things worse instead of better. In this podcast, I’m going to focus on the points that you made in that editorial, and so I’d like to know first, could you explain your view that a state-by-state approach to free college might make things worse, not better?

Chingos:           Well, the issue here is that Congress, the federal government, makes policy for the whole country, whereas every state has its own system of public higher education. Some are similar to each other, but a lot of them are pretty different. So if you try and pick, make one policy that’s going to work in fifty states, that can be very challenging. So a policy that maybe would work well in some states would work less well in others. So just one example is some states fund their public colleges a lot better than other states. So Wyoming funds their colleges really well, and as a byproduct doesn’t charge so much in tuition, whereas states like Vermont and New Hampshire funded much less well, much fewer dollars per student, and they charge a lot more. So the federal government’s going to come in and make it free everywhere. How do you do that in a way that makes sense in a place with low tuition, with the state’s already spending a lot, and it also works in a place with high tuition where the state isn’t spending very much? Do you do bail out the places that aren’t spending very much? Do you give extra money to the places they’re already spending a lot? Those are the kinds of questions that that national policy conversation asks.

Dan:                 Thanks. The article discusses that the various candidates for the democratic nomination espoused making college free or more affordable; none advocated for a centralized approach. I’m curious, do you think that’s a political calculation on their part or that they don’t understand the deficiencies of a state-by-state approach?

Chingos:           Well, what the candidates for the presidential nomination all talked about is a national free college policy. So they’re saying there should be, you know, one national policy and the way most would accomplish it is through what’s called a state-federal partnership. So they’re not saying that the federal government can directly pay tuition everywhere. I think folks recognize if the federal government just said, we’ll pay up anything anyone’s charging, colleges will say thank you very much, and they all raise their prices. So there’s an acknowledgment that they have to do the state-federal partnership. But there, during that campaign, which obviously now is a little more wrapped up than it was in December when the article came out, but in that campaign, the debate tended to focus on who gets free college and whether there should be an income test, whether everyone should get it, as Bernie Sanders wanted, or whether there should be an income cap as folks like Pete Buttigieg wanted. But I think the real challenge is, how do you design that partnership between the federal government and state governments in a way that works well in fifty different states?

Dan:                 I’m sure there are several conceptions of what a federally-run or a federal-state partnership program would look like. What do you think would be the most effective approach? I know that’s probably a complicated question. You can give me as much detail as you like.

Chingos:           Yeah, it is a challenging question. Well, the way they tend to work is that the federal government says states that are willing to make college free or to make it more affordable are eligible for matching federal funds. So I think that basic framework is probably more or less the right one. You need something like that – some way to bring the states and the federal government together into a partnership, where the federal government puts up some money, and then the states are going to have to meet a series of requirements, right? They’re going to have to show that they’ve made college affordable enough for the use of the federal government. They’re going to have to show that they’re keeping their own skin in the game, they’re keeping their own money on the line, and they’re not cutting back, in order to get those federal funds. What that means is you’re going to have to have some more federal control. It’s not obvious what’s the right amount is, right? Folks like Bernie Sanders say, well, if the federal government gives you free college, you can’t have too many adjuncts. So we’re gonna put in really specific requirements like that. So you don’t necessarily need to have that, but you do need some set of requirements around which states can participate. The other challenge is that these partnerships are voluntary for states. So, depending on how you design, you could design a great partnership that only some states want to be part of, and you’re not gonna have free college for all. You’re going to have free college for states where the governors and legislatures want to put up the money they need to put up and are politically willing to participate in.

Dan:                 Now I want to ask a sort of delicate question. You acknowledged that in the article that it’s unclear how effectively the Department of Education could ensure that public colleges in every state offer a high-quality education to all students who want one. Now, can I nail your view down a bit more on that? So you know for right now, oversight of higher education is largely provided by regional accreditors that address different regions of the country, with the underlying assumption that it is too big of a challenge to provide oversight for all of American higher education through the US Department of Education, and the regional accreditors have a better sense of what the needs of their particular region are. Are you saying that the department of ed would be unable to ensure high-quality education if it took over fully from the states, or that it would be unable to do so if it continues the current hybrid practice of state-led federally regulated education policy? In your view, is effective oversight of something as varied as American higher education really feasible at the federal level?

Chingos:           I think it would be a real challenge. You know, I’m sure the folks at the department of ed are hardworking, smart folks, but it’s hard to sit in one place and you’re in Washington DC where I live and make decisions that work everywhere, so there’s a real trade-off there. If the federal government wants to put more money on the table, then they’re going to want more control and they’re going to want more oversight. But it can be challenging – there isn’t an easy answer. There’s probably some balance to be struck. You know, perhaps the federal government could enforce certain requirements on things like, the States have to keep putting up the amount of money they’ve always put up and not cut back. You might put in certain requirements on outcomes, right? If everyone’s going into programs, they’re all dropping out, and they can’t repay their loans and they’re not being successful in the labor market, well then maybe they’d say, well, that those kinds of programs shouldn’t be eligible for federal money, either through grants and loans directly from the federal government or through these state-federal partnerships. So you could imagine them striking a balance where they try and draw some kind of low watermarks on certain kinds of outcomes, and then leaving it up to state institutions to figure out how to get there. But you know, that’s going to be a tough balance to strike.

Dan:                 Let me just ask a clarifying question. When you are advocated in your article for a federally-coordinated approach, and by that I mean the partnership that you referred to, what you’ve just described just now, and I’m just sort of giving you a chance to clarify because to me that sounded like a very small task for the US government. That is, their role in the partnership would be relatively small, and the state’s role would be relatively large. I’m just wondering if that’s the case, how does that significantly differ than a state-by-state approach? Does that question make sense to you?

Chingos:           Well, I guess I wouldn’t say the article is advocating for that particular approach, you know, or for particular partnership. But I really was just pointing out that a state-federal partnership tends to be the way that these things work because the alternative, like I said, would just be for the federal government to say, we’ll cover everyone’s tuition rate, we’ll increase Pell grants given to everybody and just cover whatever institutions are charging. And that tends not to be good policy because institutions charge different amounts for different reasons. So I think that the goal of the article is really to explore how the design of a state-federal partnership can matter for how well it works, right? So if it’s designed poorly, it could mean no states participate, right? And then you haven’t succeeded in getting free college to all the states or to a lot of different states. If it’s designed in a way where states make college free, but then there aren’t enough spots in their public colleges because they have to reduce enrollment or they can’t increase it enough to keep up with demand, and then colleges get more selective, it squeezes out lower-income kids. That’s a problem. That’s sort of an unintended consequence. So really my goal was to explore the different tradeoffs and kind of point out that this is a challenging question. And when democratic candidates were out there as they were in December, fighting about whether college should be free for everybody, you’re only free up to $125,000 of income. That was kind of missing the point. That will be the relevant argument to be having if you are running in a state and want to do free college just as a state policy in a single state, as states like Rhode Island and New York and Tennessee and others have done, but really the relevant question here was, how do you design a federal policy that can work well in many states?

Dan:                 Thanks very much. My guest has been Matthew Chingos, Vice President for Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chingos. Dr. Chingos, thank you very much for being with me today.

Chingos:           Thank you.