Free Higher Education Is a Very Good Idea

Liberal pundits and politicians like Hillary Clinton have a host of objections to free higher education. But free college isn’t just good policy — it’s good politics.

People wait in line in the cold to get into US senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders's first campaign rally in Michigan at Eastern Michigan University February 15, 2016 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Bill Pugliano / Getty

When Hillary Clinton went on the Howard Stern Show, the former secretary of state compared Bernie Sanders’s support for tuition-free public higher education to a kid running for class president on a platform of “chocolate milk for everybody.”

More sophisticated objections to Free College for All come in at least three different flavors. The broadly libertarian objection is that the government shouldn’t be in the business of guaranteeing individuals positive outcomes like a college education in the first place. Critics of this type believe in “negative” rights (i.e., rights to not have others aggress against us), but oppose “positive” rights such as the right to health care or tuition-free public higher education. Then there’s the pseudo-populist objection, made by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Pete Buttigieg in 2019, that Free College for All is a gift to the children of the rich. (Plutocrats, after all, are part of the “all.”) Finally, there’s the technocratic liberal objection that Sanders’s sweeping proposal to abolish tuition at all public colleges and universities (and trade schools) is well intentioned but poorly designed.

Noah Smith pushes this last objection in a recent Bloomberg Opinion column. Smith is friendly enough to positive rights, and he correctly criticizes Clinton and Buttigieg. Far from being a giveaway to the rich, under “most plans” for financing tuition-free public college through taxation, “the wealthy and upper-middle class would end up paying most of the bill.”

So what’s the problem?

The Scott Walker Objection

Smith argues that “free college comes with a much bigger risk that is rarely acknowledged by its opponents.” The risk is that pubic colleges will be made more vulnerable than they already are to the miserliness (and ideologically motivated vindictiveness) of Republican budget-cutters.

If governments don’t shell out the money to replace the lost tuition dollars, universities could end up starved of funds.

Almost all public universities now receive much of their funding from state governments. In some cases these are controlled by leaders who doubt the value of universities, and are occasionally downright hostile. For example, former Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker cut public funding to the University of Wisconsin system.

Democratic socialists might hope that the enactment of an ambitious left agenda that includes Free College for All alongside elements like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal would realign the political landscape in ways that would undercut the Scott Walkers of the world, but Smith doesn’t want to gamble universities’ funding model on “a never-ending wave of socialist political victories.” Besides, he points out, there are non-ideological reasons that state governments have cut university budgets.

Raising taxes can be politically dicey, especially where rates are already high and there are worries about driving business elsewhere . . . Then there’s the business cycle. Most states reduced spending on universities during the Great Recession and the vast majority didn’t restore it to its former levels after the recession ended. Sanders’s own state of Vermont decreased higher education spending per student 16% between 2008 and 2018.

If even Vermont’s government won’t pony up the cash, who will?

All in all, he concludes, “smashing the current funding model” of higher education is too risky.

The Current Funding Model

Before addressing Smith’s concern, it’s worth highlighting some of the reasons why that current funding model is unacceptable. Many liberal critics of Free College for All point out that low-income students pay relatively little tuition, but this defense of “the current funding model” is insufficient for at least three reasons. First, that model entails an unjust two-tier system whereby recipients of need-based financial aid attend college under a different set of rules than students whose parents can pay for their tuition. For example, financial aid tends to come with strict conditions about attendance.

The way this works varies a bit across institutions, but my current employer, Georgia State University, for example, requires instructors to keep careful attendance records in the early weeks of the semester, even if we don’t plan to grade attendance, so those attendance records can be provided to the financial aid office. Even though poorer students often have better reasons to miss class than their more affluent counterparts — they’re more likely to have to work while they attend college, more likely to have to take time off to care for sick relatives, and so on — they’re in danger of having their financial aid cut (and hence having to drop out) if they don’t attend enough during those weeks.

Students whose parents can simply cut a check for tuition, on the other hand, can blow off a couple weeks at the beginning of the semester without risking anything but a lower grade.

Second, students who come from families that aren’t quite poor enough to qualify for extensive need-based tuition aid often have to take out significant student loans. Some graduate and get good jobs and pay them back, but others don’t, and there are disturbing racial disparities there. Black students are both far more likely than white students to fail to graduate and far more likely to have to take out loans for the time they do spend in college.

Finally, we shouldn’t be complacent even about those students whose parents can easily afford to cut a tuition check. In her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish writer Anu Partanen reports moving to America and being shocked to see how the lack of a robust welfare state forced Americans into what she describes as “almost pre-modern” forms of interpersonal dependence.

One of her examples is the way that American spouses have an incentive to stay in bad marriages for the sake of losing their health insurance. Another is the way that children are dependent on their parents in ways their counterparts aren’t in countries like Finland that already have Free College for All. When this is just a matter of loving and supportive upper-middle-class parents demanding daily phone calls from the children whose tuition they’re paying, this might seem like a fairly innocent irritation, but consider, for example, gay college students who have every reason to worry that their fundamentalist parents will cut off their tuition checks if they come out of the closet.

This is a funding model that deserves to be smashed.

Who Will Pony Up the Cash?

What about Smith’s concerns about the alternative? Doesn’t abolishing tuition leave college funding vulnerable to every new Scott Walker? If even Vermont has cut college funding, what hope is there for the other forty-nine states?

To start with the last point, Vermont’s current governor, Phil Scott, is a Republican. The senior senator from the state, Patrick Leahy, endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. People whose idea of Vermont is largely based on the politics of Bernie Sanders and the cultural aesthetics of Ben & Jerry’s might assume the state is some sort of hippie-socialist utopia, but the reality is that the reason they’ve been voting for a democratic socialist in every election since 1988 is that the democratic socialist in question is an immensely talented left-wing political communicator who’s very good at appealing to Republicans and independents. It’s one of the reasons I’m so confident that he would defeat Donald Trump in a general election.

More important, Senator Sanders has a clear answer to the question of who will pony up the cash — the federal government. In both the 2016 and 2019 iterations of his presidential campaign, he’s advocated that Free College for All be financed by means of a modest federal tax on Wall Street transactions.

Smith’s objection only makes sense if either (a) a future President Sanders was able to convince Congress to pass half of his proposed legislation, abolishing public college and university tuition but not taxing Wall Street transactions to pay for it, or (b) Congress passed both halves but some future Republican majority overturned the funding mechanism while leaving the abolition of public college and university tuition intact. Neither scenario strikes me as particularly realistic.

For one thing, as far as I know, the total number of congressmen and senators who support tuition-free public higher education but don’t support funding it with a Wall Street transaction tax is zero. As far as (b) goes, it’s telling that no Republican majority has ever, for example, tried to abolish the federal payroll tax that funds Social Security in favor of throwing the program to the states. The reason isn’t that Republicans love Social Security. It’s that they know that such a blatant attempt at cutting the ground from beneath a popular universal program would be political suicide.

Socialists don’t advocate universal programs because we believe that the Left will continue to win elections in “a never-ending wave.” Just the opposite. One of our reasons for emphasizing the importance of universality is that means-tested programs are more vulnerable to future right-wing budget cutters, who can question whether the recipients “really need” the help. Even conservative parties in countries like Canada and the UK have to at least pretend to want to preserve those nations’ socialized health systems.

Once Free College for All is firmly established, future generations of American conservatives might well be forced to at least pay lip service to preserving that.