Over the past several years, representatives at the state and national level from across the political spectrum have clamored to increase financial access to and enrollment in postsecondary education. Now, as the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race heats up, advocating state sponsored tuition-free college appears to be a prerequisite for admission.

The growing emphasis on tuition- or debt-free, college, as a means of increasing universal access to higher education, has resulted in large part from widely promulgated claims that a college degree guarantees upward mobility — and that the financial gains resulting from the acquisition of a degree far outweigh the large sums of money used to finance that degree.

Nevertheless, a growing body of research indicates that increasing student’s ability to finance traditional college education through loans and subsidies will not, on its own, improve students’ prospects of employability or upward mobility.   

One reason for this is that many graduates are leaving college unprepared for the workforce having few marketable skills. A third of the more than 700 employees interviewed in a nationwide survey conducted by "The Chronicle of Higher Education" lamented that a large percentage of bachelor’s degree holders lack basic workplace proficiencies, such as adaptability; written and oral communication skills; and the ability to problem solve, make decisions, analyze data and construct cogent arguments.

Furthermore, even those who are adequately trained in basic skills frequently find themselves unemployed or underemployed because they have enrolled in programs that do not align with available employment opportunities.  

An additional and perhaps more serious problem is the substantial number of students who enroll in college but don’t leave with a degree. In terms of enrollment, the nation has made incredible progress in improving access to two- and four-year institutions. In fact, the number of students from the bottom income quintile who enrolled in college immediately following high school graduation reached a historic high of nearly 70 percent in 2016.

Unfortunately, the increased enrollment rate has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of those who graduate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 63 percent of females and 57 percent of males who enrolled at a four-year degree granting institution in fall 2010 had completed their degree six years later. The completion rates for minority students and those at the bottom of the income scale are even lower than the national averages. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that dismal completion rates even affect low income students receiving fully subsidized tuition at the nation’s most elite schools.

Based on low college completion rates and unreliable employment outcomes for many who do graduate, it is clear that major efforts are needed to increase transparency and accountability in higher education. In contrast with popular ranking systems, which tend to measure schools based on standards such as faculty research and awards, endowment levels, faculty-to-student ratios, student body diversity, etc., researchers at the Brookings Institute have proposed a ranking approach that would examine the effect that individual colleges and majors have on student outcomes such as level of job skills possessed, mid-career earnings, ability to repay student loans, etc. Another option worth exploring is how employers and industry leaders themselves can provided institutional accountability and information to help prospective students make better higher education choices based on their desired labor market outcomes.    

Increasing the correlation between higher education and prosperity will additionally require efforts to improve degree completion rates without sacrificing the standards necessary to ensure students earn a worthwhile degree. While many students drop out because of financial constraints associated with limited individual and family resources, lowering the out of pocket costs through taxpayer subsidies is not enough to ensure their success.

Poor academic preparation in the K-12 years plays a significant role in the completion problem, as does a lack of social capital and familiarity with what is required to thrive in an academic setting and beyond. Furthermore, many low income and disadvantaged students have significant work and familial responsibilities that make it difficult to maintain their full time status.  

Finally, improving higher education outcomes will require greater effort to bridge the current gap between education and work. This can be done by increasing opportunities for work-based applied learning experiences, by improving schools’ ties with employers and local industries and by expanding access to nontraditional education and career pathways such as apprenticeships and other vocational education programs.  

As young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are almost universally encouraged to enroll in higher education, greater attention should be directed towards ensuring that the money, time and other resources invested in such enrollment will ultimately lead to better life prospects.