Research Paper: Why Higher Education Should Be Free

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[. . .] It is not a foregone conclusion that greater levels of higher education would completely cure the American electorate of ideological stupidity -- but at this point, with a system this dysfunctional, it certainly could not hurt.

Additionally, in a subtle point which is possible one that is worthy of our deepest consideration, Thomas Frank has noted that the current economic inflation in the cost of a college degree has other, less obvious effects on the economic and political life of the nation. As Frank wrote in a 2012 editorial for Harper's

To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt -- total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars -- is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn't going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can't get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won't propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden. (Frank 2012)

The economic logic here is subtle but it is inescapable. When the price of a Yale education is upwards of fifty thousand dollars a year, a new graduate of Yale is not going to be able to consider a career in teaching high school, because the price of the student loans would militate against any line of work that is not more immediately remunerative. Yet the value of a Yale education is surely not such that it should only qualify a person to become a "profit-maximizing machine," in Frank's memorable phrase. When we have created a system where the best and the brightest of academic achievers cannot go on to have a worthy career that in some way serves the public interest, but with rewards that are not chiefly or primarily financial, we have a broken system. It is comparable to the democracy we currently have, where it is impossible to run for representative office on the national level without already having millions of dollars at one's disposal. Certainly the notion that only the independently wealthy or those educated for less cost at state colleges should be able to pursue a career in secondary education is frankly bizarre to say the least, and does not bode well for the long-term health of the American state.

Yet the current economic logic of higher education is deeply deranged. In a 2012 article for Dissent, Bady and Konczal note that the distinction between market-based systems and public goods has disrupted the proper function of the American university system:

Under the neoliberal public policy regime of the past thirty years, the United States has moved from providing public goods directly toward providing coupons for the purchase of those goods in the private market. The private market encourages choice, competition, and innovation, its proponents say, especially compared to the gray, static, and inefficient public sector. Government grants, subsidized loans, and tax breaks would unleash market forces and use them to tackle the problems of higher education. Such an approach would work only if high-quality private universities increased the amount of students they were willing to educate -- if, in other words, the supply of good education were "elastic," stretching to meet the demand of additional students. Instead, students are finding an inelastic market with collapsing public provision. They face skyrocketing prices and the rationing of quality education, with for-profits purveying counterfeit goods to make up the difference. (Bady and Konczal 2012)

In other words, the current logic of the economic system would only hold true if universities were an aggressively metastatic growth industry, constantly seeking out and colonizing new untapped markets. But they are not. There is not an exponentially increasing number of students in demand for their services, nor should these institutions be regarded as the sort of enterprises which are expected to show steroidally-unrealistic growth to shareholders, like the average bundle of fraud and puffery that passes for a corporation in contemporary America.

Yet there is a bright side to this situation. For a start, the notion that free higher education might be possible for all does have a potential technological fix. The recent rise of "MOOC"-style courses -- in other words, education offered online and thus minimizing the cost for all sorts of physical infrastructure -- could potentially revolutionize the way in which education is delivered. This has been a focus of numerous innovators, such as Wadhwa, profiled in Time Magazine in 2012 for his insistence that costs might be potentially cut to "near zero" simply through technological innovation alone:

Wadhwa has unwavering faith in the power of technology to fix much of what is wrong with the world, and he believes that online courses will revolutionize higher education and cut the cost to near zero for most students over the next decade. This is a powerful concept. On the same weekend some 1,500 miles away in Kansas City, the Council for Economic Education was hosting its own conference of ideas and started by noting that student debt now tops $1 trillion and that a third of college students drop out -- with debt and without a degree. Nearly a third of the average 18-to-24-year-old's income goes toward debt repayment, much of it owing to student loans. (Kadlec 2012)

Simply put, the revolution in how education is provided and conducted could have the consequence of making it easy to make it free for all. In other words, the proposal might not require vast public subsidy and taxpayer expenditure. But more to the point, some attempts at regarding a guaranteed free college experience for young people have been conducted without adding a dime to the federal budget. Caplan-Bricker reported earlier this year for The New Republic on an experimental program tried in Kalamazoo, Michigan and thereafter implemented in over thirty cities elsewhere, in which private donors funded a program in which college costs would be guaranteed:

If a college degree is becoming as essential as a high school diploma was a generation ago, why not make college free? This was the essential question behind an ongoing experiment called the Kalamazoo Promise, launched in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2005. Any student who has attended Kalamazoo public schools since ninth grade or before can use Promise funds, which come from private donors, to pay all or most of the tuition at any of Michigan's public universities or community college. The program has inspired upwards of 30 similar efforts in cities around the country, and the idea has seeped into the policy debate… (Caplan-Bricker, 2014)

Caplan-Bricker goes on to report that, for students enrolled in these philanthropically-funded experimental programs, overall scores were higher and dropout rates were lower. In other words, the experiment of free higher education is already being tried in a contained and limited way in some local precincts, and it is a vast success. It is not hard to see these positive preliminary results and feel better about advocating a national push towards the implementation of this nationwide as an ideal to be strived for, perhaps with the additional commitment of taxpayer money as well.

In conclusion, free higher education for all provides a number of social benefits: it gives America an informed citizenry and an educated workforce. It is an engine of economic productivity, considering that it does provide such workers. It indicates that the American system is working and that social mobility is possible, even though all other factors point to American economic life having morphed into a rigged casino for the hyperrich overclass. It allows college students to graduate without a crippling level of debt, and frees up the most qualified college graduates to complete their studies with an ability to choose socially-valuable but less remunerative careers. As Howard Cohen noted in a 2003 New York Times editorial, "all of us benefit enormously from living in a society where skilled, knowledgeable, public-spirited individuals give their time and talent for the public good." (Cohen 2003). Moreover, technological advances and smaller-scale experimental implementation indicate that it may ultimately be possible to do this at less expense than might immediately seem likely. The necessity of this proposal is overwhelming, and the time for America to guarantee free higher education for all qualified students is indeed now.

Works Cited

Bady, Aaron and Konczal, Mike. "From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education." Dissent. Fall 2012. Web. Accessed 17 March 2014 at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/from-master-plan-to-no-plan-the-slow-death-of-public-higher-education

Cohen, Howard. "Who Should Pay for Higher Education?" July 8, 2003. The New York Times. Web. Accessed 17 March 2014 at: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_povcohen.html

Delbanco, Andrew. "The Universities in Trouble." May 14, 2009. The New York Review of Books. Web. Accessed 17 March 2014 at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/may/14/the-universities-in-trouble/?pagination=false&printpage=true

Frank, Thomas. "The Price of Admission." June, 2012. Harper's Magazine. Web. Accessed… [END OF PREVIEW]

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