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Free college? It doesn't fix everything

Here is one solution to the rising cost of college: Make it free. That's what a group of anonymous donors in Kalamazoo, Mich., accomplished a decade ago for local students. Almost every high school graduate in the town is eligible for a scholarship covering from two-thirds up to the entire cost of in-state college tuition.

President Obama is just one of many who praised the so-called Kalamazoo Promise, flying to the city five years ago to speak at the Kalamazoo High School graduation. More than 35 cities, from Denver and Pittsburgh to Ventura and Long Beach, have since adopted their own versions of the Promise. These schemes vary. Some have minimum GPA requirements, or target only low-income students. But they share the goal of bringing college within financial reach for all.

For good or ill, a college education is steadily becoming an entry requirement for the America middle class. But not everyone has the same chance of securing a bachelor's degree. Most high schoolers from affluent backgrounds will finish college; few from poor backgrounds will join them. Right now, the U.S. college system serves to reinforce inequality over the generations, rather than reduce it.

Can the Promise programs help create a more level playing field? The Kalamazoo program is now mature enough to provide some useful data. As always, there is good news and bad news.

First the good: High school graduation rates have shot up, and almost 90% of Kalamazoo high school seniors are enrolling in college, compared to around 70% for the state. Most encouraging of all, low-income and black high school graduates are almost as likely to enroll in college as their affluent and white peers. In fact, the black/white gap in college enrollment rates has completely disappeared in Kalamazoo, according to research from Timothy Ready at Western Michigan University.

Now for the bad news: Gaps by race and income reemerge when it comes to actually gaining a post-secondary qualification. The Promise has lifted college completion rates, but quite modestly, and far from equally.

Take the Kalamazoo high school class of 2006: White students were twice as likely as black students to earn at least 24 credits, and twice as likely to end up with a four-year degree (54% versus 26%).

This completion gap may be attributable to the fact that black and white students attended different types of educational institutions. While 56% of black high schoolers graduating in 2012 enrolled in a local community college, just 28% of their white classmates did. Inversely, 59% of whites enrolled in four-year colleges compared to 32% of black students.

Community colleges can, theoretically, offer an important service. But reflecting the national pattern, Michigan's community colleges do a poor job retaining students. These schools are a brief educational detour for most; a minority leave with a qualification.

To encourage mass enrollment, the Kalamazoo scheme sets minimal academic requirements: graduate high school and maintain a college GPA of 2.0. Opening the door this wide, however, means that many of the young adults turning up at college are far from ready for college-level learning.

Sharp differences in trajectory, which become most apparent in college, of course develop over many years. Gaps by race and class in the U.S. education system open up very early, long before kindergarten, and continue all the way through to the post-graduate level. Even in Kalamazoo, black, Latino and poor youths are less likely to graduate high school, enroll in a four-year college or gain a post-secondary qualification, especially a bachelor's degree.

The lesson of the Kalamazoo Promise is that even dramatic reductions in the cost of college have modest results in terms of leveling the playing field. Our biggest obstacle is not getting students into college, it is helping them stay there, and come out with a certificate. Getting into college is one thing: being ready to learn and progress is quite another.

The weaknesses in the U.S. higher education system run much deeper than financial affordability. There is too much focus on the four-year degree, rather than high-quality vocational learning. Quality control in terms of learning, especially in the for-profit sector, is almost nonexistent. The number of students dropping out is an annual waterfall of wasted time, talent and money. Promise schemes, like those in Kalamazoo, will help some. But the truth is that the entire sector — bloated, self-serving and costly — needs a radical overhaul. This is one problem that cannot be solved by simply throwing more money at it.

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

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