Why Programs like Universal Pre-K and Tuition-Free College Risk Student Outcomes

President Biden made tuition-free community college and universal pre-k the cornerstone issues of his 2020 campaign. And now, these programs are part of budget reconciliation discussions happening in Washington. These proposals tend to focus on universality and maximum enrollment instead of prioritizing student performance and outcomes (especially among minority and low-income students). Below is a quick primer on these critical issues and the potential unintended consequences of their implementation.

Universal Pre-K

The first thing to know about universal pre-k is that the research into academic outcomes has, thus far, been inconclusive. Some programs that were studied, like the Perry Preschool Project, seemed to increase high school graduation, raise IQ levels, and increase salaries for their participants. Others, like the Quebec Family Policy, appeared to increase hyperactivity, inattention, aggressiveness, and other negative behaviors in children, with researchers going so far as to say “exposure to the Quebec program leads to higher rates of crime”.

The federal government has, of course, already been providing pre-k funding for low-income families through the Head Start Program at an annual cost of $9.8 billion. In 2010, Congress tasked the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) with developing a report on the effects of the Head Start Program. The Department concluded that the program yielded positive initial effects, but “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade”.

The conclusions drawn from the DHHS study are important in this debate. Pre-k is often thought of by itself, but instead must be thought of in the broader context of a child’s K-12 educational experience. If a child is zoned to a poor-quality public elementary school, and is not afforded any alternatives, then it is entirely possible that any gains experienced during pre-k will be eradicated. Interestingly, the current Congressional proposal permits a mixed-delivery system for universal pre-k, which empowers parents to select the best program for their child. At the same time, it allows for parents to be denied that same flexibility when choosing a K-12 school – a policy that continues to disadvantage minority and low-income student groups who are zoned to lower quality schools.

Despite the lack of clear and compelling evidence to support a federal investment in universal pre-k programs, Congress continues to push ahead with the proposal. All told, Democrats are looking to spend $450 billion on early childhood and universal pre-k programs (not including the state-portion of spending), or $23,011 per child under the age of 5. For the sake of comparison, Luxembourg currently spends the most of any OECD country on early childhood education – roughly $14,000 per child under the age of 5.

Tuition-Free Community College

It is no secret that the price of college has been skyrocketing with an average annual growth rate of 6.8%. The typical student now spends $35,720 per year to attend a 4-year college, including $18,509 in tuition. These costs are further exacerbated by the need for student loans and subsequent interest payments.

Community colleges, on the other hand, remain quite affordable. For an in-state student, community college tuition will cost an average of $3,400 per year. The federal government also provides assistance to low-income students through the Pell Grant program, which has a typical award of $4,418. This means that the average low-income student already has access to tuition-free community college and stands to gain nothing from the current proposal. The only beneficiaries would be middle and upper-income students, who no longer need to pay a tuition that they could afford.

The problem with some community colleges is not the cost, but the quality. Roughly 4 out of every 10 community college students graduate with a degree or certificate within 6 years. As with a typical market, the best community colleges can charge higher tuition rates as demand for their programs rises. Similarly, the worst community colleges need to charge lower tuition rates in the absence of demand. By removing the tuition factor altogether, the federal government is removing the primary incentive for these schools to meet performance goals.

Instead, we should be focusing on the reasons for poor outcomes among community college students and how to address them. Increased access to virtual learning, dual-enrollment programs, and better parking were just some of the things commonly cited by students as problematic in a 2019 survey.

Unfortunately, the $111 billion proposed for universal tuition-free community college fails to address the underlying problems plaguing these systems and their students today. In doing so, we risk enrolling millions of additional students into subpar programs with little chance of improving their success.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees …

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