Free college won't address inequality

Populist proposals for free or reduced college tuition won't help reduce inequality and might exacerbate it. Yet, I still support tuition breaks at state universities for some specific fields of study to encourage more graduates in those fields.

How could free education be a bad idea to reduce inequality?
  • Educational attainment K12 corresponds to income, and parental education attainment;
  • test scores also correspond to income and parents;
  • free colleges still have limited space;
  • elite schools, both private and state, will remain elite; and
  • college breaks benefit the upper-middle class most.
Yes, some students from low-income and lower-middle would be helped by free tuition, but many already qualify for grants and scholarships. The reality is that college tuition is a middle class concern, like the home mortgage deduction. Politicians aim for the middle, where voters are.

Colleges are not going to build thousands of new classrooms and hire tens of thousands of instructors. Not that there is a shortage of doctorates (surpluses explain the adjunct armies). However, free tuition is likely to come from existing spending. That could reduce any (nonexistent) plans to expand facilities and faculty.

Nations with free tuition don't offer the palaces of learning and "student life" now used to recruit at US campuses. Our elite colleges, including many state universities, are resorts and health clubs with some classrooms. And the best have no shortage of applicants; they know the market. It is about the "experience" to many education consumers.

I'd love more focus on teaching, but that's not going to happen. Students now shop on other criteria.

With limited space, schools must use placement tests and other quantifiable entrance requirements. Vague standards lead to lawsuits, so expect rigorous admissions policies. And for whom will these tougher standards work? The upper-middle class, statistically.

Think about it this way: California's best students will still want to attend Cal Berkeley and UCLA, the crown jewels of the University of California system. Out-of-state and international students also want to attend these great institutions. Space is limited. Already, admission into these universities is difficult for all but the best of the best students. Make them free and that situation won't change, and the competition to earn admission will escalate. Who will be able to afford the test-prep, interview training, and other extras that might help with placement? The well-off, of course.

If grants are made, at roughly the median cost of a university, that also benefits the middle-class more than it does other groups (for better or worse). Unless grants cover all expenses, low-income and lower-middle students are likely to attend lower-cost institutions in affordable cities. The rich will attend whatever universities admit them, regardless of cost.

In Germany and Sweden, where universities are "free" (at least the tuition is), students still accumulate debt, and graduation rates are about the same or slightly lower than the United States degree completion rate. How is that possible? Because "free" doesn't offset room, board, books, fees, and the incidental costs of living in the expensive cities in which universities tend to be.

The "free" universities internationally also aren't the leading research institutions they once were. That's probably not a coincidence.

To control costs, time limits would need to be in place to prevent "perpetual students" from taking seats. Colleges and universities would start to resemble large high schools, without much flexibility. If you want the public to pay for higher education, there's simply no way to avoid cost controls and restrictions on choices.

If people complain that universities feel like businesses (a claim I reject, for many reasons), imagine trying to structure them to handle exploding populations with already limited state and federal funds. As with healthcare, the United States actually spends quite a bit on education… with the states and cities spending the most getting some of the worst results. How will this trend translate to higher education without spending restraints? No, there will be restraints and tough choices.

One choice that must be made by states: what degree programs to expand and which to cut. Free or low-cost could result, as it has in France, in an oversupply of humanities graduates. Not that I don't love the humanities (I have an English degree, after all), but yet more English and art majors isn't a good investment of public monies. No, that's not "fair" if you don't believe in telling people what they can study — which is why I only half-heartedly support public subsidies for select fields.

How can I still support low-cost or free state college and university education in some fields?

The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are among the most important to our futures. I'd argue these are the fields that will improve lives. Though the humanities matter, they simply aren't the engines of progress. And, despite what some of my colleagues claim, there's no evidence studying the humanities makes for "better" people: consider the painter Hitler or the philosopher Lenin. And I'm not going to argue that STEM experts are any more (or less) humane. But, we need inventors and scientists to move forward.

More importantly, STEM degrees do promote class mobility more than the humanities. Engineering does pay more than being a theatrical artist. Medicine pays more than being a "{fill in the blank} studies" expert.

If we can help students from lower- and middle-income prepare for college admissions, and that will require investing in our K12 systems, then grants for STEM field degrees would be a great way to offer upward mobility.

Reducing the cost of college won't fix the K12 problems. It won't equalize parental influence. It won't change which career paths pay the most or offer the most social standing. Free college isn't a magical solution to anything, and it might make some things "worse" in terms of inequality. Our colleges won't be magically populated by students from disadvantaged urban and rural school districts. That's just not going to happen.

My assumption is that university population profiles wouldn't change significantly with "free" tuition.

It hasn't worked to shift inequality in Germany or Sweden, and low-cost education elsewhere has had little to no effect on mobility. The higher mobility in other industrialized nations has more to do with their narrow class segments, a far more complicated issue than free college tuition.

Promising free or "affordable" college is really about appealing to particular voters. It isn't about improving educational quality, which has actually stagnated in the free-tuition nations.

That doesn't make "free" a horrible idea, but it won't address inequality.



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