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Higher education: Should college be free for all?

Carol Christ, Chancellor | May 23, 2015

Should college be free for all? Bernie Sanders thinks so. So did John Adams. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it,” Adams argued. That belief motivated the establishment of land grant colleges, in the 1862 Morrill Act, “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

Sanders has proposed a 21st-century equivalent to the Morrill Act, introducing legislation to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities; the cost would be financed by a tax on financial transactions. The tax would provide two thirds of the cost; the states would need to match with the remaining third. The proposed legislation contains other provisions as well: that student-loan interest be reduced and that tenured or tenure-track faculty provide 75 percent of the instruction in colleges and universities receiving funds.

At the base of the debate about the cost of college is the question whether college is a private or a public benefit. The answer is clearly both. A college degree increases lifetime earnings substantially — by about $1,000,000 — and provides better and more employment opportunities. But individuals are not the only ones who profit from college; the nation, and the states that compose it, benefit from a more skilled and educated workforce and the social mobility inherent within it. Education, in today’s world, is the path to the American dream.

Colleges currently operate on a system of variable pricing. They discount their tuition for significant numbers of students. In addition, Pell grants — the federal grants for needy students — provide additional subsidies. Forty percent of undergraduate students at the University of California at Berkeley pay no tuition; 65 percent receive some form of financial aid. However, those students whose families are judged to have sufficient resources to pay tuition, are so charged.

Sanders’ proposed legislation carries the greatest benefit for this top 35 percent; despite its populist rhetoric, it would make the biggest difference for those families earning more than $140,000 a year, who don’t qualify for financial aid.

Yet a far higher percentage of students from upper income brackets than those in lower income brackets attend college, despite state and federal investment in financial aid. Seventy-seven percent of adults from families in the top income quartile earn a bachelor’s degree by 24; 9 percent from the bottom quartile. Does this stark difference come from the cost of tuition? The answer is much more complex, involving K-12 preparation, lack of information about college and about financial aid, and the concentration of needy students in those colleges — community colleges and for-profits — with the poorest graduation rates.

We need more public investment in higher education, but free public college tuition for all is not the best use for such funding. We need programs that help students succeed who come to college with less preparation; we need more investment in the community colleges where such students tend to begin post-secondary education; we need more transparency in pricing and financial aid; and we need to discourage the use of financial dollars on merit aid for the wealthy.

Variable pricing is the right principle. From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.