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The Future of Free College

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The Future of Free College

Brookings September 20, 2018
EducationHigher Ed

Editor's note: The following is an event held by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. Beth Akers joined a panel with other policy experts, non-profit leaders, and government officials in higher education. Learn more here.

Given the continued rise in college costs and prices, and more than $1 trillion in outstanding college loan debt, few issues have drawn more widespread attention and concern than college affordability. President Obama made headlines while in office with the idea of free community college, an idea that, while not adopted during his time in office, now has momentum with many Democrats and some Republicans. To shed light on the merits of this idea, Douglas Harris, professor of economics at Tulane University and nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, has conducted an almost decade-long randomized trial assessment of a free college program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A growing collection of research on the topic is also emerging in cities and states across the country.

On Sept. 20, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings hosted Harris for a presentation on the results of his unusual experiment. A distinguished panel also discussed the broader national landscape of research and policy on free college. The panel explored what we know about the effects of free college, their potential for increasing the nation’s college attainment levels and reducing gaps in access by family income, and the possible unintended consequences.


  • Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education - The State of New Jersey
  • Robert Kelchen, Assistant Professor, Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy - Seton Hall University
  • Beth Akers, Senior Fellow - Manhattan Institute
  • Douglas Harris, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Governance Studies, Brown Center on Education Policy
  • Martha Kanter, Executive Director - College Promise Campaign


Beth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and coauthor of "Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt." Follow her on Twitter here.