Debating Free Higher Education

The latest issue of Dissent is centered on the theme “Arguments on the Left.” The issue brings together disparate voices from across the Left to address some of the biggest issues we are confronting today. You should read the whole thing, which includes discussions on party politics, solidarity movements, justice, civil liberties, labor, reproductive rights, anarchism, Marxism, Zionism, and religion. Here, I’m going to link to a blog-favorite: the issue of free higher education. I’ve been on team-free-higher-ed for a long time, and three smart minds debate the topic in Dissent. Here are some excerpts:

Staking out a controversial claim, Max Bruenig argues that free college is actually a regressive demand, stating that “making college more or entirely free would most likely boost the wealth of college attendees without securing any important egalitarian gains.” He continues:

Given… class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.

Conceding that college is mostly a place for the privileged, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains that people often don’t attend college due to cost, but also because “going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules—rules that can change.” She lays out the inequalities and obstacles that keep people out of college beyond cost, arguing for an expansion of the conversation beyond its usual limits. She closes with a powerful rejoinder on education as a public good:

I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality. As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. I don’t care that it will likely only benefit the high achievers among the statistically unprivileged—those with above-average test scores, know-how, or financial means compared to their cohort. Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition… Those of us who believe in viable, affordable higher ed need a different kind of language. You cannot organize for what you cannot name.

Already, the debate about if college should be free has forced us all to consider what higher education is for. We’re dusting off old words like class and race and labor. We are even casting about for new words like “precariat” and “generation debt.” The Debt Collective is a prime example of this. The group of hundreds of students and graduates of (mostly) for-profit colleges are doing the hard work of forming a class-based identity around debt as opposed to work or income. The broader cultural conversation about student debt, to which free college plans are a response, sets the stage for that kind of work. The good of those conversations outweighs for me the limited democratization potential of free college.

Mike Konczal argues for debt-free college education because of the vast inequality that is increasing thanks to student loan debt. He also sketches out how the erosion of higher education as a public service is hurting the country as a whole, and how it is tied to other aspects of our economy – “public disinvestment in the states has been paired with generous tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations” and “for-profit schools that have been filling in the gaps have saddled many poor people with lifelong debts.” He also makes a strong argument for higher education’s ability to help close the gap between classes in America and bring people together in unique ways:

Education is a right that the government must grant. Higher education, then, shouldn’t be left to a handful of private schools, where administrators pursue their own objectives independent of public need, or to the market, which is only interested in how much it can profit at any given time. The point of public higher education is to collapse precisely this distance between elite and mass education, by ensuring better access and higher quality that would never otherwise be available on a large scale.

Higher education also provides one of the last spaces for young people not shaped solely by market values. The American liberal arts model is unique in that it allows for experimentation, learning, and community-building. Attacks on higher education haven’t simply been about raising tuition but about dismantling this model itself. A notable example is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to remove phrases such as “improve the human condition,” “the search for truth,” and “public service” from the state university’s mission, reorienting it simply toward the needs of business.

All three of these pieces are worth reading and thinking about. I’m obviously partial to the latter two – education is a fundamental right to those who want it, a path for class mobility, a means through which to improve society as a whole, and a signifier of what we value in the communities we live in. The college population may be unequal, but – in my opinion – the idea of college itself continues to be a vital institution which we must defend.

This is just one of many conversations happening on the left – check out the rest.

Update, October 18: Sara Goldrick-Rab has also written a salvo also on the topic of free higher education. Though published by Brookings, it speaks clearly to the Left (don’t read the other stuff in the series there, which seems more like the typical). Goldrick-Rab makes clear the stakes that we’re facing. Higher education was possible and attainable for those who wanted it two generations ago, but it has been harder and harder to get precisely as a college degree becomes more ubiquitous and more necessary for our futures:

In the 1970s, targeting financial aid on the poorest individuals made sense—after all, most people didn’t want to attend college, it wasn’t required, and college costs were low enough that the Pell Grant largely covered the bills.

Today, that model is failing: the vast majority of the populace wants access to affordable, high-quality public higher education, it is required by the modern labor market, and college costs are so high that grants and scholarships provide but a meager discount restricted to only a fraction of students with financial need. Means-tested financial aid, administered via a massive bureaucracy, leaves out both the very poorest—who cannot navigate the system—and squeezes the middle-class, who are offered only loans.

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