What’s wrong with free public college?

by Harry on February 5, 2024

My paper with Kailey Mullane on what’s wrong with free public college has been published in Educational Theory, open access so anybody who wants to can read it. Obsessive readers of CT (are there any?) will know that I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the issue for quite a while, and the arguments we’ve had here helped me and Kailey refine our views and develop the paper. What we did in the end was look at and analyze a hybrid of the Warren and Sanders proposals from the 2020 primary, evaluating it against two relatively simple normative criteria – equity (which we explain) and whether it would raise the average level of educational outcomes across the population. (Later in the paper we consider other values that might also be relevant).

Free public college might sound great if you ignore the cost and compare it with what we have now. But given the way public higher education is actually funded currently, and given the persistent patterns of enrollment (and even on very optimistic assumptions about how those patterns would change if public college were free), for various structural reasons almost none of the new spending would be on students from the bottom 50% of the income distribution and most of it on students in the top 25% of the income distribution. Some people (here) have defended this by saying that under these plans the funds would all come from taxes on the super rich. Even if you believe that, mightn’t there better feasible alternative ways of spending those funds in education? We compare the proposal with i) spending those funds in k-12 (which, unlike higher education, is a universal program) and ii) spending the funds on expanding the Pell Grant program (a very popular and successful program for supporting lower income students). Either of those will be much more equitable (in any reasonable sense) ways of spending the money, and will probably (there’s a caveat to this that you can see in the paper) in raising the average level of educational outcomes.

I can’t speak for Kailey, but I was (naively) a bit shocked when reading the Warren and Sanders proposals how thin and lacking in detail they were, and how clear it was that they had not consulted anyone who knew anything about higher education funding as it currently works. For example, they seem not to understand within each state public colleges and universities are unequally funded, with much more government funding per student going to institutions attended by more affluent students, and much less to those attended by less affluent students; they also seemed not to understand that low income students usually pay very low rates of tuition at the institutions they attend: for those students the financial barrier to college is not, usually, tuition, but living expenses, which eliminating tuition does nothing about at all. Sanders’s requirement that states participating in the free public college not spend any more money on administrators, if it is serious as opposed to crowd-pleasing, reveals that he doesn’t know what administrators do (or what “administrators” means). As things stand the US government (all sources) spend about 30-40% more per student/year in higher education than in k-12, and both candidates (considering their overall education policy offer) were proposing to increase that differential considerably. When I pointed this out to my dad, who was a veteran observer of ill-considered political decisions, he said “That’s not really what they care about. It’s just that nobody in their campaigns has bothered to do the calculation that you have done”.

Because discussions here at CT have had such an influence on my own thinking, I thought some of you might be interested in reading the whole thing so here’s the paper. Please share it with your friends, and feel free to comment!