Left Side: Should College be Free?

We’ve Long Provided K-12 Education. Why Not Free Higher Education as Well?

by | Oct 31, 2018

Two years ago, when Bernie Sanders made “free college” a centerpiece of his campaign platform, critics on the right—as well as many self-proclaimed moderates—scoffed at his proposal. But the fact is, none of the criticisms hold up to scrutiny.

The most immediate knee-jerk reaction was to cry “socialism.” To some degree, the label is fitting. But so what? One could easily apply that label to our K-12 public school system as well—and yet, with the exception of people on the fringes of the radical right—Americans have long taken free public schools for granted as a good and necessary part of life in these United States.

There was a time when free K-12 education was sufficient. In the 1950s and '60s, it was still possible for a high school graduate to find a decent job—one that paid enough to support a family on a single salary. For a variety of reasons, as everyone knows, that is no longer the case. As Sanders put it in an October 2015 op-ed piece in The Washington Post, “A college degree is the new high school diploma.”

If we readily accept the “socialism” of our public school system, in other words, there are no grounds whatsoever for opposing free college with that argument.

Fine, some opponents retorted—but how are we going to pay for it?

The money is there. We remain the wealthiest country in the world. It’s a matter of priorities. It’s telling, for example, that few Americans—and none on the right, so far as I know—ever ask that question about military spending, which currently stands at $825 billion. The premise is that having a “strong military” is essential for our national defense. I don’t dispute this argument in principle. The problem is, much of this money is wasted. This has been well documented over the years. Nevertheless, most politicians on both sides of the aisle are afraid to take this issue head on for fear of being branded unpatriotic.

The irony is that an educated citizenry is at least as essential for our national security as a strong military. After all, as Thomas Jefferson famously said, a nation cannot expect to be both “ignorant and free.”

This raises another important point. For many decades now, Americans of all political stripes have taken a reductionist view of education. There is a widespread and unquestioned assumption that the sole purpose of education is preparation for the workforce. That is certainly one purpose. But Jefferson, and many other enlightened leaders throughout history, knew that it served other purposes as well: first and foremost, arming people with the knowledge and critical-thinking skills that are necessary for participation in a democracy. Alas, our nation has drifted far afield from this idea. As humanities scholar and Jefferson expert Clay Jenkinson put it in his book Becoming Jefferson’s People, “We are today the most ill-educated great nation in the world … ” For evidence of this, one need look no further than the fact that Donald Trump is president. “I love the poorly educated,” he said in a victory speech—and why wouldn’t he? Only the poorly educated would believe his ridiculous claims about getting Mexico to “pay for the wall,” for example—and only the ignorant would revel in his bigotry and sexism.

Trump’s celebration of ignorance as a virtue is more blatant than that of any predecessor, but it is nothing fundamentally new. As the great historian Richard Hofstadter documented in his classic book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a streak of anti-intellectualism has run deep in our country from the very beginning.

With this in mind, there is much work to do, above and beyond addressing the problem of skyrocketing college costs. We need leaders who can persuade the populace of the importance of education across the board.

In the course of my conversations on this topic, I’ve encountered some people who agree with all the points I’ve made here so far, but remain opposed to free college on the grounds that formal higher education doesn’t necessarily educate people in the classic sense of the word. “I don’t want my tax money to subsidize kids who just want to party for four years,” one friend told me.

Unfortunately, like so many other people, he is basing his perceptions on stereotypes spread through hearsay. As a college professor, I can attest to the fact that most students I encounter are getting a good education. That said, I must admit that I’ve also encountered students who are wasting their time and money because they simply don’t put in the work.

With this latter group in mind, I must make another important point. Arguing for “free college” is too simplistic. If we as a society want to tend to the needs of all citizens, in the interest of our national welfare, we must extend the phrase to, “free college or vocational school.”

Some people, after all, simply aren’t cut out for a four-year liberal arts degree. But there are probably many more than you think. Over the course of my lifetime as a student, and later as a teacher, I’ve encountered many people who were mediocre to poor academic performers in high school but blossomed once they got to college. Many of them now, in fact, are gainfully employed in fields that they never would have discovered, or been prepared for, had they not attended a university.

The trouble is, they are often hindered from maximizing their potential because of massive debt. Consider this: One year at Old Dominion University, according to the institution’s website, costs about $22,000, including tuition, room and board, and miscellaneous fees. One year. The cost of a year at most private colleges and universities is, of course, much higher.

The upshot is that even with financial aid of various kinds, millions of students are leaving college with enormous debt. One friend of mine, who graduated from a state college 12 years ago, left with a debt of about $45,000. “I’m just now hitting the principal,” she told me recently.

It doesn’t take a professional economist to understand that when huge numbers of Americans are in this much debt it’s not good for our society as a whole.

With all of this in mind, it is imperative that we revisit Sanders’ proposal, whether he ends up running for president again or not. The centerpiece of his proposal is to make tuition free at all public colleges and universities. To help those who opt for private institutions, meanwhile, he continues to push for reforms in student-loan policies. These include cutting interest rates, and prohibiting the federal government from profiting off of student loans.

As Sanders said during the campaign, however, sending him or some like-minded individual to the White House would not, in and of itself, solve the problem. Nor would a radical shift in the makeup of Congress. In the aforementioned op-ed piece, Sanders reminded us that there was a time when free K-12 education wasn’t widely accessible to all. “It took populist pressure from the progressive movement, beginning in the 1890s,” he wrote, “to make widespread access to free public schools a reality.”

Today we are in need of a comparable grass-roots progressive movement to ensure that all citizens have the education they need to make the most of their own potential and to make informed decisions in the election booth. There are many who argue that even now, our democracy is dead—that we live, instead, under an oligarchy. There’s a case to be made for this argument. But I believe there’s still time. Nevertheless, the hour is getting late.

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