Even the Chronicle of Higher Ed is going after Bernie
This is about "College for All." On the back of my most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is an opinion piece, "Free Public College Is a Terrible Idea," by Brian Rosenberg. I presume readers of this critique are familiar with Bernie Sanders' College for All proposal. At any rate, you have to subscribe to the Chron to read Rosenberg's critique, so I'm going to have to quote the piece's primary arguments in order to critique Rosenberg, and to explain why College for All is still worthy of consideration. Rosenberg has a few objections, and an alternative proposal (expanding the Pell Grant). I will try to deal with them in an organized, readable manner here.
Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that the proposal is not both unaffordable and unenforceable without an unprecedented level of state cooperation and expenditure. Let’s pretend as well that it is more than bumper-sticker material and actually the product of careful thought. Let’s pretend that it actually could become the law of the land.
I'm always amused by these questions of "can we afford it?" Every year Congress hands the store to the Pentagon, and nobody asks "can we afford it." The states, moreover, waste money on prisons, money which can be redirected to rehabilitation efforts and... expanding state college systems. It's easy to afford College for All -- redirect some money that currently goes toward idiotic purposes. There will be enough.
Moving on, Rosenberg argues that free college would make public universities harder to enter. Here's the money quote:
Here is almost certainly what would happen if these public universities were to become tuition-free: The absence of tuition would sharply increase the number of applications they received and would make them even more selective than they are now.
Unless those elite universities completely changed their admissions practices, an increase in selectivity would benefit primarily the high-achieving students who attend private and well-funded suburban high schools.
One wants to remark at this point that the streets of America today are full of underpaid adjunct professors and would-be adjunct professors who have long since given up on the idea of making enough money to live comfortably while teaching America how to be smarter. The University of California, for instance, could have at least one more campus if all of these people were to be granted decent, well-paying university jobs doing what they were trained to do when they got their Ph. Ds. So as tuition becomes free, the states will have more Federal money to create more universities. At some point in this expansion, the underprivileged will receive a decent education. The states should want to do this already.
Another concern of Rosenberg's is that we will be funding a lot of people who will just drop out of college. Here's what he says:
Nor does anything in these plans address the quality and efficiency of education provided at public institutions, so the graduation rates at the less selective, woefully underfunded institutions would remain low or get lower. The current six-year graduation rate at four-year Minnesota state universities is 49 percent. Among students of color it is 44 percent. More than half of the students who would attend such a college free would not receive a degree from that college.
Someone needs to inform Rosenberg what those of us in the adjunct class know already: students drop out of universities because they can't find the time to work full time while going to classes. Free tuition changes that equation.
A good argument, of course, asks the question of "what would you do instead?" Rosenberg has an answer to that question. He says:
But any policy change should focus on ensuring that the greatest benefit accrues to those who are most in need, that is, those from the lower income levels.
Toward that end, Rosenberg recommends an expansion of the Pell Grant. The problem with such arguments, proposing charity instead of College for All, is that if we means-test our generosity toward those who are currently paying through the nose for college, we get three outcomes: 1) people slip through the cracks, being too rich for charity but too poor to afford college, 2) the programs become known as "welfare" and "entitlements" (and thus they become the topic of campaigns against them) rather than simply as a universal benefit of life in the land of the free, and 3) said programs are made subject to cutbacks. Universal College for All means that everyone supports it because everyone is a potential beneficiary. Everyone.