A Philosopher's Blog

Should Two Year Colleges be Free?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2015
Tallahassee County Community College Seal

Tallahassee County Community College Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Germany has embraced free four year college education for its citizens, President Obama has made a more modest proposal to make community college free for Americans. He is modeling his plan on that of Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Haslam has made community college free for citizen of Tennessee, regardless of need or merit. Not surprisingly, Obama’s proposal has been attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. Having some experience in education, I will endeavor to assess this proposal in a rational way.

First, there is no such thing as a free college education (in this context). Rather, free education for a student means that the cost is shifted from the student to others. After all, the staff, faculty and administrators will not work for free. The facilities of the schools will not be maintained, improved and constructed for free. And so on, for all the costs of education.

One proposed way to make education free for students is to shift the cost onto “the rich”, a group which is easy to target but somewhat harder to define. As might be suspected, I think this is a good idea. One reason is that I believe that education is the best investment a person can make in herself and in society. This is why I am fine with paying property taxes that go to education, although I have no children of my own. In addition to my moral commitment to education, I also look at it pragmatically: money spent on education (which helps people advance) means having to spend less on prisons and social safety nets. Of course, there is still the question of why the cost should be shifted to the rich.

One obvious answer is that they, unlike the poor and what is left of the middle class, have the money. As economists have noted, an ongoing trend in the economy is that wages are staying stagnant while capital is doing well. This is manifested in the fact that while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.

There is also the need to address the problem of income inequality. While one might reject arguments grounded in compassion or fairness, there are some purely practical reasons to shift the cost. One is that the rich need the rest of us to keep the wealth, goods and services flowing to them (they actually need us way more than we need them). Another is the matter of social stability. Maintaining a stable state requires that the citizens believe that they are better off with the way things are then they would be if they engaged in a revolution. While deceit and force can keep citizens in line for quite some time, there does come a point at which these fail. To be blunt, it is in the interest of the rich to help restore the faith of the middle class. One of the nastier alternatives is being put against the wall after the revolution.

Second, the reality of education has changed over the years. In the not so distant past, a high-school education was sufficient to get a decent job. I am from a small town and Maine and remember well that people could get decent jobs with just that high school degree (or even without one). While there are still some decent jobs like that, they are increasingly rare.

While it might be a slight exaggeration, the two-year college degree is now the equivalent of the old high school degree. That is, it is roughly the minimum education needed to have a shot at a decent job. As such, the reasons that justify free (for students) public K-12 education would now justify free (for students) K-14 public education. And, of course, arguments against free (for the student) K-12 education would also apply.

While some might claim that the reason the two-year degree is the new high school degree because education has been in a decline, there is also the obvious reason that the world has changed. While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.

It could, of course, be argued that a better solution would be to improve K-12 education so that a high school degree would be sufficient for a decent job in the information economy. This would, obviously enough, remove the need to have free two-year college. This is certainly an option worth considering, though it does seem unlikely that it would prove viable.

Third, the cost of college has grown absurdly since I was a student. Rest assured, though, that this has not been because of increased pay for professors. This has been addressed by a complicated and sometimes bewildering system of financial aid and loads. However, free two year college would certainly address this problem in a simple way.

That said, a rather obvious concern is that this would not actually reduce the cost of college—as noted above, it would merely shift the cost. A case can certainly be made that this will actually increase the cost of college (for those who are paying). After all, schools would have less incentive to keep their costs down if the state was paying the bill.

It can be argued that it would be better to focus on reducing the cost of public education in a rational way that focuses on the core mission of colleges, namely education. One major reason for the increase in college tuition is the massive administrative overhead that vastly exceeds what is actually needed to effectively run a school. Unfortunately, since the administrators are the ones who make the financial choices it seems unlikely that they will thin their own numbers. While state legislatures have often applied magnifying glasses to the academic aspects of schools, the administrative aspects seem to somehow get less attention—perhaps because of some interesting connections between the state legislatures and school administrations.

Fourth, while conservative politicians have been critical of the general idea of the state giving away free stuff to regular people rather than corporations and politicians, liberals have also been critical of the proposal. While liberals tend to favor the idea of the state giving people free stuff, some have taken issue with free stuff being given to everyone. After all, the proposal is not to make two-year college free for those who cannot afford it, but to make it free for everyone.

It is certainly tempting to be critical of this aspect of the proposal. While it would make sense to assist those in need, it seems unreasonable to expend resources on people who can pay for college on their own. That money, it could be argued, could be used to help people in need pay for four-year colleges. It can also be objected that the well-off would exploit the system.

One easy and obvious reply is that the same could be said of free (for the student) K-12 education. As such, the reasons that exist for free public K-12 education (even for the well-off) would apply to the two-year college plan.

In regards to the well-off, they can already elect to go to lower cost state schools. However, the wealthy tend to pick the more expensive schools and usually opt for four-year colleges. As such, I suspect that there would not be an influx of rich students into two-year programs trying to “game the system.” Rather, they will tend to continue to go to the most prestigious four year schools their money can buy.

Finally, while the proposal is for the rich to bear the cost of “free” college, it should be looked at as an investment. The rich “job creators” will benefit from having educated “job fillers.” Also, the college educated will tend to get better jobs which will grow the economy (most of which will go to the rich) and increase tax-revenues (which can help offset the taxes on the rich). As such, the rich might find that their involuntary investment will provide an excellent return.

Overall, the proposal for “free” two-year college seems to be a good idea, although one that will require proper implementation (which will be very easy to screw up).


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18 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 23, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    I don’t think anyone should be allowed to attend college right after high school. I think everyone should be required to serve in the armed forces for at least two years active duty. This would enable people to grow up, have a job, have responsibilities, earn money for college, and would dramatically cut back the childish foolishness that occurs on campus when people do attend college.

  2. TJB said, on January 23, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    Mike, why does this need to be done at the federal level? Tennessee is a poor state and was able to do it. If other states want to do it nothing is stopping them.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:19 am

      That is certainly well worth considering, although we have yet to see if Tennessee can pull it off without federal aid.

      Like you, I favor the local over the federal-when the local can do it. It would be good if the states could handle it-but many states have budget issues and have been cutting education spending, often to support tax cuts for business.

      • tom hewitt said, on January 24, 2015 at 10:44 am

        The feds don’t have quite the budget issues that the states do, since the fed prints as much money as it needs.

  3. wtp said, on January 23, 2015 at 10:22 pm


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:20 am

      Exactly right. Someone has to pay for it-the question is who gets the bill?

      • wtp said, on January 24, 2015 at 9:30 am

        The person getting the education. This isn’t hard. There are economic arguments, for which you are not capable of engaging, that subsidizing education actually drives up the overall cost. Putting those concerns aside, the idea that a person most benefitting from something should pay the larger share of the cost is not all that hard to appreciate.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 12:16 pm

          What about K-12? Kids can work part time, so by your reasoning should they not be paying for their schooling?

          • wtp said, on January 24, 2015 at 1:49 pm

            The subject is free two-year college, not K-12. You are changing the subject entirely. You are being a dick.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:40 pm

              Here is why this is relevant.

              First, you say “the person getting the education” should pay. If this applies to two-year colleges, then it would seem to also apply to K-12. You’d need to provide a relevant difference between the two to show that your principle applies only to two-year college and not K-12. Now, it seems reasonable that kids that are too young to legally work should not pay at the time-but they could pay later. Kids that could work, such as high school kids, could work to pay for school. Why accept free K-12 and reject free two-year college?

              Second, I do argue that two-year colleges are effectively equivalent to what a high school degree used to “mean.” So, the arguments for free K-12 should apply to 2-year college as well. Assuming I am right about 2 year degrees being the new high school degree.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 7:41 pm

              Insulting me, as always, adds nothing to the discussion.

            • wtp said, on January 25, 2015 at 11:02 am

              If this applies to two-year colleges, then it would seem to also apply to K-12.

              No, it does not “seem to”. Only a fool would make such a leap. This is what you do and this is why you are, as I say, a dick. Rather than stay on the subject, which is who should pay for 2-year college education, on which you present a point on which I have engaged you in discussion, you obfuscate. This then drags out the discussion long enough for you to later abandon it. I have repeatedly engaged in discussions with you. You will note I answer all your questions and you simply abandon or ignore mine when things get difficult. You certainly don’t take on the argument as put forward but instead pick around the corners looking for gotchas, etc. As TJ even notes I have made many telling criticisms of his economic ideas to which he has never even attempted to respond. This is far more disrespectful when you consider how much of other people’s time you waste.

              Sometimes though, I do feel guilty for my responses. I have oft considered that you have some form of a developmental disorder akin to Asperger’s syndrome. Children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development, tend to have problems understanding language in context and are very literal in their use of language. The thing is, you tend to pick and choose when and where to be literal or completely non-literal (hint-hint) in your use of language. Also, children with Asperger’s are often considered “too honest” and have difficulty being deceptive. You have no problem at all with the latter. Except for your being so transparent and yet lacking the self-awareness to understand how transparent you are being. Your disorder seems to stem from an inability to understand the concept of respect. Perhaps you lacked a strong father figure in your life. Who knows. End result is what we have before us and it’s not good.

              Again, I am not insulting you. I am describing you. If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it’s a duck. Your vowel may vary.

              All that said, I would be willing to engage on the subject of two-year free college if you are willing to accept the
              ground rules I stated in an earlier post, do you promise to stay with the conversation, answer the questions honestly? No playing silly word games, no clown nose, no sophistry, and no abandoning the discussion when things get uncomfortable for you.

              Dodging the question adds nothing to the discussion.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 26, 2015 at 11:44 am

              >No, it does not “seem to”. Only a fool would make such a leap. This is what you do and this is why you are, as I say, a dick.Again, I am not insulting you. I am describing you. If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it’s a duck. Your vowel may vary.<

              Accusing me of having a developmental disorder is clearly an insult.

              But what warrants free K-12 but does not apply to free 13-14? You don’t actually address that-you just say I am a fool, accuse me of having a developmental disorder, and then say that I need to follow the rules.

              I have tried to actually engage you in the discussion again, but as before you just insult me, insist that your insults are not insults, and fail to actually provide any arguments.

            • WTP said, on January 26, 2015 at 3:45 pm

              Mike, only a fool would expect a Kindergartner to hold the kind of job that would support the system in which he is taught. Now you can argue that we have children work what they can or that at some cutoff age before 12th grade that they can do some work to repay the system. But no reasonable person would expect that. And no one with any understanding of economics, a concept of what wealth is vs. what money is, would submit that such a thing is even remotely possible. I wasn’t going to dignify your foolish question with an answer, especially as you fail time and time again to answer my far more legitimate questions. And yet you whine about how I “insult” you. BTW, one is not “accused” of a developmental disorder. It is not a crime. See, I can be childish and play gotcha games as well. But it’s not so nice being on the receiving end, is it?

              It all boils down to disrespect. Just look at your answer to Tom below. He makes several valid points about the flaws in your argument, many of which I would agree with and INCLUDING the point you want to make about the equivalency of HS vs. 2-year college, and what is your response? A childish, clown-nosy “These would not be logical errors-you are claiming that I am saying untrue things. So, you should accuse me of making factual errors.” Is that respect? Were this sort of thing a one-off for grins, WTH. But you do this sort of thing consistently. Someone takes the time and effort to compose a rational, thought out response to one of your posts and if you can’t argue with it, you beclown yourself. And you call your self a professor of ethics? Pitiful. Shameful as well.

  4. tom hewitt said, on January 24, 2015 at 11:21 am

    It’s difficult not to sound disrespectful in commenting on an essay with so many logical errors. To tackle just a couple:

    “while the stock market has rebounded from the crash, workers are, in general, doing worse than before the crash.”

    How do we know that? How is the “doing worse” measured in any sort of empirically meaningful way? You could bring up the level of unemployment, perhaps. But isn’t it possible that the pool of unemployed, should, in fact, be unemployed? That in this particular environment they don’t have the personal characteristics required to produce a profit for an employer? There’s lots of people getting a paycheck right now that really shouldn’t even have jobs, school administrators, for instance. There is no such thing as a “worker, in general”. Everyone is an individual with unique qualities and requirements. Putting them into classes is the first tenet of Marxism.

    ” While I grew up during the decline of the manufacturing economy, we are now in the information economy (even manufacturing is high tech now) and more education is needed to operate in this new economy.”

    The reality is that less education is now needed, at least in the sense of an education to perform a task, since tasks have been simplified to make it possible for the uneducated to perform them. Observe the fast food industry, which manufactures simple, inexpensive, standardized meals. Their workers don’t require an extensive and expensive education in food science and chef techniques, they’re basically moving prepared product from one location to another, from the freezer to the grill to the counter. You could make the argument that an education is necessary, for example, to discover the best possible locations for fast food retailing but only a handful of people in the company are needed to do that.

    At one time not long ago plumbers used cast iron drain pipe joined by hubs and spigots with oakum driven in the joint and molten lead poured over it and then driven onto the oakum to seal it. This required a development of skill and technique. Because it wasn’t easy to find people capable of performing this complicated task a “no-hub” system was developed that uses a rubber sleeve and metal clamp to seal the joint. A simpleton, with a minimum of training, can do this.

    Ultimately, the idea of organized education as we now know it as a pathway to a higher standard of living is on shaky ground. Our educational system is built on the foundation of the post-medieval Germanic university and is in many ways unchanged from that ancestor. Technological changes have made this system obsolete. An ordinary individual with a scintilla of motivation has access to more information than a brilliant soul did just a few years ago. Why do they need to go to community college?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 24, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      These would not be logical errors-you are claiming that I am saying untrue things. So, you should accuse me of making factual errors.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on January 26, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Happens every time. Dems rail against the “rich” and talk about private jets, but when it comes down to policy they target the middle class.

    Mike, how can you tolerate such brazen deception in the politicians you support?

    Earlier in the week, I discussed the Obama administration’s proposal to tax earnings on so-called 529 college savings plans, part of a package of tax hikes that will pay for new programs such as his proposal to make the first two years of community college free. This has been touted as a plan to hike taxes on the rich to help the middle class, but in fact it’s more of a plan to redistribute money from the upper middle class to the lower middle class.


    Why did I find that particular question a compelling topic for a column? Because it’s a question we may have to ask ourselves. As I observed when I first wrote about the plan, the very fact that we are discussing taxation of educational savings — redistributing educational subsidies downward — indicates that the administration has started scraping the bottom of the barrel when seeking out money to fund new programs. Why target a tax benefit that goes to a lot of your supporters (and donors), that tickles one of the sweetest spots in American politics (subsidizing higher education), and that will hit a lot of people who make less than the $250,000 a year that has become the administration’s de facto definition of “rich”?

    Presumably, because you’re running out of other places to get the money. The top tax rate on people who make more than $413,000 ($464,000 for married couples) is already almost 40 percent. That’s on top of Medicare taxes (2.9 percent, not capped), Social Security taxes, state and local taxes (in a deep blue area like New York City, these can amount to 10 percent, though you get some of that back by deducting state taxes from your federal tax) — a marginal tax rate of around 45 to 50 percent in blue states, and possibly even more if you run a business.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 26, 2015 at 11:56 am

      The political game now seems to be about setting things up for 2016. Obama and the Democratic strategists surely know that his “tax the rich” and “help the middle class” plans will not fly in the Republican Congress. Rather, the plan is presumably to make the Republicans looks anti-middle class. The Republicans, of course, need to counter this and create the impression that they are the true champions of the middle class and that Obama and the Democrats are the true enemies of the middle-class.

      As far as supporting politicians, I usually go with the Democrat because s/he is somewhat less bad than the Republican, but (with some notable exceptions) the goal of a politician is to get re-elected. Reid and McConnel, though using different rhetoric, both seem to be all about staying in office and keeping power. Like most Americans, I don’t think very highly of politicians.

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