A Philosopher's Blog

Free College?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2013
Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University, Cambri...

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The cost of college has increased considerably since I was a student. Back then, college was expensive but it was still possible for students of modest means to go to  a good school and graduate with a modest amount of debt. That is, in fact, what I did. Now that I am a professor, things are different: college is far more expensive (even factoring in inflation) and students are often burdened with crushing debt. In some cases this debt is due to poor decision making on the part of the student. In many cases it is due to a combination of the high cost of college and poor economic times.

Not surprisingly, some have suggested that the public higher education system follow the model of the K-12 education system. To be specific, it has been suggested that college should be free. While this certainly would initially appeal to parents and students, it is rather important to consider what is meant by “free” here.

In one sense, K-12 public education is free. That is, the students are not charged to attend school and the parents do not receive specific bills from the schools. In another sense, K-12 education is not free. After all, someone has to pay for the buildings, buses, salaries and so on. Those someones are, of course, people like me and (most likely) people like you. We pay for the schools through various taxes and various other means. As such, the free education is not really free. Rather, what “free” means in this context is that the cost is shifted from the students and parents to the whole population of people who pay the taxes and such used to fund the schools. That is, we have what some folks would regard as the socialization of education. While there has been an increased push towards privatization of education via voucher proposals and such, few have advocated removing the public funding of public education. The usual concern has been about where the public money is funneled.  However, we have generally had a collective agreement that public funding of K-12 education is a public good worth funding, albeit in rather unequal ways.

Following the K-12 model, free public college would be free in one sense and not free in another. That is, the students and parents would not be specifically billed by the schools and thus the education would be free. However,  someone would have to pay for all the campuses, salaries and so on and those someones would, once again, be people like me and (most likely) you.

The main benefit of shifting to “free” public higher education, is that the shift in cost from the students/parents would presumably allow more people to attend college and would, obviously, allow them to graduate without any debt (at least from the cost of education). While there is considerable debate about the value of college education (and whether or not everyone should go to college) it does seem reasonable to think that a college degree is generally a plus. Also, it would certainly be advantageous for students to graduate without facing the burden of education debt (although they would still face non-academic debt).

The most obvious concern about “free” public education is that funding it would obviously require replacing the income that was once generated by students/parents paying for school. This would most likely mean that the cost would be largely spread across the general population of taxpayers. That is, while parents and students would pay less than before, everyone would have to pay more to allow for “free” college.  Also worth considering is the fact that making college free would increase college enrollment, thus increasing the cost to the taxpayers relative to the current system (which does include some funding of public colleges/universities).

One moral concern is whether or not this shift in costs would be fair to people who did not attend college or send their children to college. However, the arguments in favor of “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this. Naturally, new arguments could be forged against “free” college education because of the differences between college education and K-12 education.

Since I greatly value education and think that it is a public good, I would tend to favor “free” college n the same grounds that I favor “free” K-12 education. I would, of course, have to accept the need to put my money where my values are and be willing to pay more to allow “free” college, even though my college days are long past and I have no children. However, I obviously do not speak for everyone and the question of whether the public good generated by “free” college education would be worth the cost to the public.

Returning to the practical matter of cost, one way that the decrease in revenue would be addressed is by (ironically) reducing (or at least not increasing) enrollment. After all, rather than generating extra income each student would generate only extra cost.  While this approach would help offset the lost income, there would need to be a system of rationing education. Currently, education is distributed primarily based on wealth (and to a much lesser extent merit). That is, the ability to pay is the main selecting factor for who goes to college. When the cost of school is taken out of the matter, then another selection system will be needed, especially when “free” college would probably entail that many more people would want to go to college. While the system used might be fair and just, this seems unlikely-especially because of what already occurs in the K-12 system. In any case, making college “free” would thus not seem to broaden the access to college. Unless, of course, college is made “free” and the loss of income is not countered by reducing or maintaining enrollment.

If college were made “free” and enrollment was not reduced or kept the same, then schools would obviously need to grow enough to handle the influx of students. This would seem to have two possible results. The first is that the citizens would need to pay more for this growth. This would raise, once again, the question of whether the increased cost would be worth the gain (if any) for the general good.  The other is that resources would need to be spread ever thinner. For example, my typical class might go from 35 students to 140 (or 350) as demand surged. Or, of course, both would probably happen: people would pay more while resources are spread even thinner. Naturally, online classes could help with this, but there would still be questions about the quality of such massive education systems.

It is worth noting that even if public education was free, then private colleges and universities would still  not be free. While this might initially hurt them (why pay to go to Marietta College when the University of Maine is free?), if public education becomes rationed or diluted, then private schools could still do quite well. After all, people with adequate money sometimes chose private K-12 education over the “free” public education. There is also the fact that, for example, an expensive degree from Harvard would be worth far more than a “free” degree from a public school and thus paying for education could still be a good investment.

While “free” college” is an idea worth considering, it must always be remembered that “free” just means that the cost is shifted, not that there is no cost.

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11 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2013 at 8:58 am

    A lot of the expense for college is for room/board/books/car/spending money/internet/etc. Will the taxpayers be expected to subsidize these items as well, or just tuition?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 31, 2013 at 11:12 am

      The usual proposals involve just “free” tuition. However, student aid does often cover books and some students do get “free” housing. The more that is covered, the greater the cost to the taxpayers.

      Such subsidies could have a similar impact that health insurance now has on medical costs: ridiculously high prices.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2013 at 9:11 am

    And is it fair to make men subsidize an environment that is hostile to them?

    If women were fleeing the nation’s universities and colleges, we would have a national uproar, but men are now fleeing in large numbers and society barely notices. Numbers tell the story. Men have been falling behind women for decades. By 2009 National Center for Education statistics for degree-granting institutions listed 11.658 million women enrolled and 8.769 million men. Many predict that women will soon account for 60 percent of our college grads. Public colleges like North Carolina at Chapel Hill and private ones like NYU have almost reached the 60 percent mark already. The University of Vermont in Burlington has so many women that the women jokingly call their college town Girlington. Diane Ravitch, the noted historian of education and a former assistant secretary of education asks: When will it be fair? When women are 60 percent or 75 percent of college enrollments? Perhaps it will be fair when there are no men at all.”

    Among minorities, the male-female balance is even more skewed. When economist Andrew Sum and his colleagues at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University looked at gender disparities in the Boston Public Schools, they found that for the class of 2008, among blacks there were 188 females for every 100 males attending a four-year college or university. Among Hispanics the ratio was 233 female for every 100 males. The facts are incontrovertible: young women from low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., do much better than the young men from those same neighborhoods. There are now dozens of studies with titles like “The Vanishing Latino Male in Higher Education” and “African-American Males in Education: Endangered or Ignored?”


    In an article on the Minding the Campus website, Professor Robert Weissberg explained why so many men are fleeing the campus: “Universities are increasingly becoming feminized and many men, to use the antidiscrimination vocabulary, loathe a hostile working environment. In a word, males increasingly feel emasculated in today’s universities.”

    A commenter named Marcus weighed in on the Minding the Campus article: “As a black male I can testify that this is indeed what is happening on college campuses. White males are at the forefront of the academic sexism but they are definitely coming after all males. Believe it.”

    Men’s activist Glenn Sacks encountered this dynamic first hand at UCLA in the late 1990s, when the hostilities against men were running deep. He summarized his thoughts in a column that highlights the question many men are asking themselves:

    I thought of the feminist academics (female and male) who poured their derision upon them, knowing that their students could not effectively fight back. I thought of the timid male professors who were so content with their own careers that they were perfectly willing to allow 18 year-old boys to be beat up on rather than jeopardize their own comfort by speaking out. And I asked myself a question which hundreds of thousands of male college students often ask themselves: “What am I even doing here?”

    Free College, But Not Worth It

    Many other men ask themselves the same thing in today’s anti-male climate. “Michael,” a 28-year-old conservative, wrote to me to tell me his story. He went to the University of Florida free as a National Merit Scholar and winner of a Bright Futures Scholarship:

    One of my professors was fascinated by me, in the way you might be fascinated by a bizarre animal that you don’t understand; at one point, he announced (in front of the rest of the class) that I was surely socially maladjusted because my parents had spanked me when I was a child. At another point, during a dinner near the end of the semester, I made the mistake of mentioning that I planned on purchasing a firearm when I finished with college and got out on my own.

    From the wide-eyed looks around the dinner table, you’d have thought I said I eat babies on a regular basis. Needless to say, the professor thought this was further evidence of my maladjustment. I couldn’t walk to class without passing at least one group of surly protestors every day. Sometimes more than one. You name it: protesting Taco Bell, protesting Israel, this and that, to the point where I felt like I was besieged on all sides perpetually–and that was even before I got into class for my daily dose of propaganda. Eventually I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore. Free was too much to pay for this.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 31, 2013 at 11:38 am

      I’ve been writing about the fact that men are now a minority in college for years. I have repeatedly made the point that when women were the minority, the feminists took action to counter what they regarded as sexism. Now that women are the majority, these same feminists are oddly silent.

      I did consider that the reasons why men are now a minority in college might not involve any sexism against men. After all, gender disparities do not automatically entail sexism. For example, women are a minority of Starcraft II players, but this does not seem to result from sexism. I did argue that many of the factors are not sexist in nature, but did note that there are factors that seem to be clearly sexist, such as special scholarships just for women and the existence of some hostility towards males in some academic settings.

      My own university, Florida A&M University, has had a female majority for as long as I can remember. However, I have not seen any evidence of a general hostility towards men (although I admit that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) and the reasons for the gender imbalance would seem to be elsewhere. It is, however, a matter of concern. The problems, I suspect, lie mainly outside of the university.

      Other universities might be very different, of course. I can attest to the fact that I’ve caused some dismay in conversations with some other academics because of certain views they regard as non-liberal (such as my being pro-gun and pro-hunting). Interestingly, such dismay often seems to be an emotional reaction rather than the result of a considered position. As such, I can see how some male students might encounter faculty who are dismissive of “traditional male” ways. Such folks probably do not think of themselves as being anti-male, but also probably do not stop to think how deriding and attacking “traditional male ways” might impact a young man in college. There is also the fact that when discussing the victimization of women, some academics present this in ways that cast all men as villains simple because they are men. I’ve run into that unthinking crap myself and have pointed out that treating men as mere “oppression objects” is just as sexist as treating women as mere sex objects.

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2013 at 12:17 pm

        I’ll bet you are always careful to leave your office door open if you are talking with a female student.

        Do you think female professors worry about these things?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 31, 2013 at 5:01 pm

          I’m careful to leave the door open when talking to any student. At the last faculty planning conference, we had a security expert give a talk that included office safety-he recommended never closing the door with a student in the office.

          But, I do get your general point-while male professors might be suspected of making with the smooth moves behind closed doors, the same is general not believed when it comes to female professors. Female professors are probably seen as being more worried about being assaulted by male students.

          However, I think this is a general gender thing and not limited to the academy. For example, when I am running and approaching a female runner/walker on the trails, I will intentionally make a lot of noise so she will be aware of my presence before I am too close. This is partially out of courtesy and partially to avoid being hosed down with Mace. Women generally do not do that when approaching male runners/walkers.

  3. WTP said, on May 31, 2013 at 9:26 am

    As if college isn’t alread rather “free” anyway. Public universities are highly subsidized by the taxpayer on both ends, via direct support to the state univiersity systems from both the state and sometimes the federal government, and then via student “loans” that are frequently not paid back and thus are much higher risk than the interest rates government subsidizes them reflect. I state this exclusive of the research performed at these institutions that the government pays for, which itself is at times suspect, though probably not too far out of line to be concerned about. Many economic studies have been done that suggest that this subsidation has actually driven the cost of education higher.

    And there is plenty of what could more accurately be described as “free” education via privately funded scholarships (a word completely missing from Mike’s essay, critical thinking indeed). In today’s world one would be hard pressed to find a truly worthy student who lacks the means of getting a good education in a field society has use for. Either up front via the previously mentioned private scholorships or by employer-funded education. Way too much money is being sunk into subsidizing the aimless young person whiling their time away in pursuit of a degree in psychology, sociology, the “humanities”, etc.

  4. WTP said, on May 31, 2013 at 11:11 am

    However, the arguments in favor of “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against “free” K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this.
    Looks like Mike is doing some forward thinking here. Moving from sophistry implementation into sophistry consulting. Shrewd, my man, very shrewd.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 3, 2013 at 3:04 am

    WTP – Mike is not a sophist, and I’m getting really tired of you saying he is. You, on the other hand, I wouldn’t even dignify with the term: sophist, because the term denotes a modicum of intelligence and education, which you lack.

    As for the post, if our priorities placed life over death, we would have plenty of money to pay for people to go to college without raising taxes. If we would end the wars and shut down the DoD we could actually have a tax break included with college funding.

    The big lie psyops, however, are too powerful, and peoples believe the lie that DoD is keeping us safe from Muslim terror. Peoples, in general, are not very intelligent, and are not well educated enough to realize this is a big lie psypos, and would sooner increase DoD’s budget than decrease it. Fear is a powerful tool the government uses upon the simple minded, and it works very well. Critical thinking is the very last thing the US government would ever pay for. In fact, it’s been doing it’s level best to dumb peoples down for many years.

    VIDEO – Red Ice Radio – Richard Grove – Hour 1 – Learning vs. Schooling – http://youtu.be/O1Xn-lPdU_4

    • WTP said, on June 3, 2013 at 6:57 am

      You’ve entered the biomass zone. Your heeb h8 and conspiracy obsession speak for themselves. All else is a waste of typing.

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