The rising cost of college has become a hot issue in this campaign season, a trend that I welcome as a professional college educator. President Obama has challenged us to make community college free for all. Bernie Sanders has done him one better by proposing that all public colleges should be tuition-free. Hilary Clinton has put forward her own "college-affordability plan" which proposes to address the problem through a combination of grants and low-interest loans, at a cost of $350 billion over ten years.
Sustaining and increasing access to education is obviously a key agenda if we are to reverse the malignant trend of widening wealth inequality and preserve the benefits of broadly shared prosperity that have been the hallmark of American society since World War II. There is, however, room to disagree as to the means by which this should be accomplished. Matt Bruenig, writing in the New Republic (hat tip to my dear friend Kathy Phillips Nanney), argues against the concept of free college. His argument rests on two pillars. The first is an assertion about social dynamics and economics: free college would represent a regressive wealth transfer from the working class, that does not send its children to college but whose taxes would support such a program, to the middle class. I am not impressed by this line of reasoning. Bruenig has underestimated the advantage that working class families might take of such a program to access otherwise unattainable opportunities. He is also not accounting for the degree to which the middle class is likely to shrink over time if something is not done to ensure access to higher education moving forward.
The second foundation of Bruenig's reasoning concerns the moral dimensions of a free college policy:
Due to the toxic American mix of aversion to welfare benefits, love of
individual rights, and faith in meritocracy, the typical line you hear
about free college is that it should be a right of students because they
have worked hard and done everything right. The implicit suggestion of
such rhetoric is that students are really owed free college as the
reward for not being like those less virtuous high school graduates who
refuse to do what it takes to better themselves through education.
Bruenig warns that this type of rhetoric, if it prevailed as policy, would harden attitudes that underwrite inequality. Rather, we should stress that public assistance for college tuition is "indistinguishable from benefits for the disabled, the poor, the
elderly, and so on." In this way, Bruenig argues, "it may be possible to encourage wealthier students
to support the welfare state and to undermine students’ future claims of
entitlement to the high incomes that college graduates so often receive."
I am sympathetic to Bruenig's egalitarian impulses, but here again I think he is underestimating deeply entrenched attitudes about meritocratic achievement and reward. All Americans can go to high school on the public tab, but the fact that their diploma was paid for out of tax coffers does not translate into a general acknowledgement that public high school graduates owe the increased earning power of their degrees to the community at large. Whoever pays for college (and right now a majority of middle class graduates already receive some form of tuition assistance), Americans will feel that graduates have done work that others were unwilling or unable to do (despite having the same opportunities), and will thus have earned higher salaries, without incurring a deeper debt of gratitude to the welfare state.
Though Bruenig's moral argument against the rhetoric of free college is thus flawed, his point about the dangers of deepening inequality is substantial. Creating a new entitlement on the understanding that it was "earned" simply by doing what young people had been expected to do all along will drive a deeper wedge between those who receive its benefits and those who do not. The end result could be that a program designed to foster social mobility ironically impeded it.
Is the answer, then, that free college must be abandoned as a policy goal? I would argue not. There is a rather easy answer to the objections raised by Bruenig, and it involves moving in the opposite direction he proposes. If one wants to fight against the deleterious effects of calling tuition assistance earned, the simplest way to do so is to make students earn it.
If one took the amount that Hilary Clinton proposes ($35 billion/year) and set it aside as a general fund for which students could compete on a voluntary basis by taking a nationally administered exam, the effects could be extraordinarily positive. This would accomplish several goals at once. It would counter objections to the creation of a new entitlement, in that it would represent a public investment in individual improvement, ensuring that students could not only go to college, but that they were well-prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity once they got there. Moreover, it would create incentives to intellectual achievement that might beneficially change the larger culture of the nation.
I am not proposing to replace the current privately administered college entrance exams. This new test would not be a test of "scholarly aptitude," but a raw quantitative test of scholarly achievement. Several hundred questions would be asked in an array of subject areas (history, civics, literature, science, mathematics, current events) over several hours. Stress would be placed on empirical factual information, to minimize the impact of class, gender, ethnic, and other forms of bias. A reading list could be published and updated of 500-1000 books, journals, and newspapers out of which the questions for each year's exam would be drawn. Questions ranging in difficulty from the very easy to the very abstruse would all be included. After the test had been administered the scores would be ranked and cash assistance dispersed on a sliding scale keyed to the results.
The effect of such a system would be to create a national individual "race to the top." With so much money at stake, families, schools and communities would mobilize to assist students in acquiring the knowledge needed to compete. This would go a long way toward redressing persistent problems that plague our educational system and society at large. As an educator I find that a vast majority of students enter my classroom, having graduated high school, but lacking the basic knowledge required to embark upon a college education. I have occasionally done a "diagnostic" quiz at the beginning of a semester course on world history, with questions of the difficulty of: "What war began in 1914?" Among approximately 70 students, the average correct response rate has typically been between 1 and 2 in twenty.
As Rick Shenkman has outlined, my classroom is far from unique. Study after study demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans, including college graduates, lack the most basic knowledge about politics, history, our system of government, and other fundamental dimensions of civic life. Many concerned observers have proposed means to redress this problem, but the social and cultural forces that perpetuate ignorance are too powerful to combat through the institution of curricular changes or new government programs. However, if we make the acquisition of knowledge pay off immediately and materially, that could potentially change behavior in dramatic ways. Consumption of books and newspapers might rise. Communities might mobilize to insure that public school do a better job of inculcating lasting knowledge. The producers of movies, television, and internet content might come under market pressure to provide more programming and services that are not only engaging and entertaining but that convey factual information in a way that is memorable and thought-provoking.
Such a system would obviously not be without flaws. No test could be completely free of bias, and wealthier families would obviously have greater resources to spend on test preparation, dampening the system's potential to increase social mobility. But such reasoning is to set the perfect in opposition to the good. The advantage enjoyed by the affluent would require lower income families and communities to organize socially and politically to leverage their chances to compete. But even given that onus, the system I propose would still provide more broadly shared opportunity than the status quo. Moreover, the organizing efforts of lower-income communities (for example, the creation of new shared lending libraries or joint tutoring programs) could have ancillary benefits, not only for the communities in question but for society and the nation as a whole.
Free college for all is a noble and worthwhile goal. Even better, however, would be to increase the value of college itself for everyone. If at the same time that we increase access to a college education we give people the incentive to better prepare themselves for college study, the benefits would be dramatic, wide-ranging, and enduring, extending far beyond the walls of academia itself.