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Why Arne Duncan is skeptical about making college free

Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a press conference in June 2014.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a press conference in June 2014.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has heard Democratic contenders for president propose making college tuition- or debt-free — and he's afraid the debate is missing something.

A proposal for making higher education debt-free has become almost mandatory for Democratic candidates in the primary. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley have both put forward plans; Hillary Clinton's campaign manager hinted in May that she'll eventually have a proposal of her own.

Meanwhile, Duncan has been emphasizing the importance of assuring quality in education. In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Duncan and I discussed his concerns about the free college agenda and the congressional effort to overhaul No Child Left Behind.

Why Duncan thinks debt-free college isn't enough

The Obama administration has emphasized that college should be affordable. But they've also pushed harder than any of their predecessors on trying to ensure colleges are giving students value for money.

The problem, in their eyes, isn't necessarily student debt; it's when students either don't graduate or don't get good jobs, which can turn student debt from a financial handicap into a disaster.

"If all we’re doing is making cheaper or free a system in which the failure rate is so high, that doesn’t get the country where we need to go," Duncan said.

He didn't criticize the Democratic contenders explicitly, saying that it's still early in the campaign and candidates from both parties should be pressed for more specifics on their goals for higher education. But he argued that debt-free college on its own is not a sufficient agenda.

"If that’s all we’re talking about, if that’s all the nation is talking about, it is insufficient," he said. "Yes, it needs to become more affordable. Yes, we need to reduce debt. Those are important pieces of the puzzle. Those aren’t the only pieces of the puzzle."

It's important to focus "not just on access but on quality," he said. In higher education, he said he'd define quality as "do these degrees have value in the marketplace?"

It was President Obama who first put the idea of free college in the spotlight. During the State of the Union address, he called for a partnership between states and the federal government to offer two years of free community college to all students. (The White House later clarified that there would be an income cutoff: Families making more than $200,000 per year would not be eligible.)

The White House has continued quietly pushing states and cities to create free community college plans of their own, meeting with college presidents, community leaders, and business executives to talk about the idea, Duncan said.

But the White House plan — which was dead on arrival in Congress — came with strings attached. States would have to keep up their funding for higher education. They'd also have to adopt "promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes" in order to be eligible to participate.

"If you read the bill, there’s a lot in there about quality," Duncan said. "There’s a lot in there about degrees that matter. … I hope we did contribute to the idea of making college more affordable. I think we contributed to the idea of quality mattering."

Where Duncan stands on the coming battle over No Child Left Behind

When Congress comes back after its August recess, negotiators from the House and Senate will try to reconcile two very different bills to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the 2002 education law that's long been overdue for renewal.

Duncan is enthusiastic about some parts of the Senate bill, a bipartisan compromise that passed 82-17 in July, including that it specifies that states can spend some of their federal education money on early childhood education.

He said the bill has a serious flaw and needs a tougher requirement that states intervene when schools aren't meeting goals — an idea backed by the Obama administration and civil rights groups, but opposed by one of the two major teachers unions and Senate Republicans.

"Accountability is not just transparency," Duncan said. "It’s not just labeling a problem, it’s actually doing something about it. When you have kids that are struggling, when you have entire schools that aren’t working, adults have a moral obligation."

Given that the House bill, which no Democrats voted for, included a smaller federal role than the Senate bill, it's not clear that a provision like this would get enough support in a conference committee to make it to a final version of the bill.

But when I asked if he'd urge the president to veto a compromise bill, Duncan wouldn't say. "It’s too early," he said. "People are saying, 'What’s your line in the sand?' We’re being very, very clear this needs to be strengthened. … They may get to a good place, they may not get to a good place. The whole deal might fall apart."

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