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September 27, 2013 12:59 PM In Praise of the Shabby, Free, Public University

By Daniel Luzer

UglyDorm

The education unit of the American Enterprise Institute has decided to push back against the idea of free public colleges. I’m not really sure why this is necessary, since free college is not exactly a growing policy reform movement, but whatever. The points Andrew Kelly, director of the AEI Center on Higher Education Reform, makes are actually rather interesting and get at some important assumptions about idea of how much education costs and how pays for it. But no, he’s wrong. Free college would be great for America.

As Kelly writes, “shifting tuition to taxpayers may derail promising innovations,” because, as he puts it:

While it’s tempting to assume that tuition-free public colleges would solve our higher education problems overnight, merely moving resources around is no panacea for rising costs and low rates of student success.
A public option would change who pays for higher education, but not necessarily how much it costs to provide it. …While existing federal and state investments might cover the cost of a public option today, those same sums won’t go as far next year or the year after unless colleges also make changes to their cost structure. Taxpayers would have to foot an increasingly large bill.

Kelly’s fundamental point is worth addressing. He’s getting this wrong because if the money doesn’t go as far from year to year, that’s a good thing. The declining funding, coupled with an inability to charge tuition, would induce colleges to find innovative ways to save money. Which is exactly what we want to do.

If the United States were to make one-time payment covering all costs and shift the burden to the public sector, this would dramatically change the whole equation for how public colleges work.

Policymakers would then provide the same money, or some defined percentage increase from year to year to account for inflation, every year and that will be all the money colleges could get, aside from whatever they can derive from research grants or alumni donations. No tuition allowed. Granted, colleges would sure find this new funding stream difficult (indeed, many colleges are now going in the opposite direction, trying to get freedom to hike tuition in exchange for less money from their legislatures) but a limited, defined funding stream, coupled with an evaluation system that measured colleges on their completion rates and other student outcomes, would force colleges to quickly figure out where to make cuts in their budgets.

And that would be a very good thing, making public colleges operate on the cheap. Two years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting piece about academic prestige and his own higher education experience in Canada:

In Canada in that era [the early 1980s] there were, say, 10 colleges in the province. The top seven were considered to roughly equal. Waterloo is a little better for math. Toronto is in Toronto is in Toronto so, you know, it’s kind of good but no would look askance at someone with a degree from Calgary and think that he was inferior to someone with a degree from Western, which is in London, Ontario.
There are some of these schools where one can receive an education that’s quite excellent it seems to me. Very often what better means in the American context is… that it has nice amenities, that it’s fancy. Mine wasn’t like that. It was kind of run down. Tuition the University of Toronto was like $900 a year. You can’t have a fancy campus with that.

But the University of Toronto was still a really good school. That’s how public institutions works. They don’t have lavish funding so they have to focus on the essentials. That means they look kind of shabby. They have long lines and sometimes things are uncomfortable for people using the services. Students have to live in break dorms like the one shown above. And that’s just fine if we want to do what public institutions are supposed to do: provide a high-quality education at low cost to students.

This will straight-up never happen. Despite occasional progressive suggestions that free college is the answer, there is no movement whatsoever in that direction, policy-wise.

But let’s be honest here. Free college is not a “risky” venture that would “derail promising innovations.” This has been done before, quite successfully. Perhaps we’ve decided we’re not willing to target resources in this direction (though the United States totally can afford to do this), that it costs too much money to educate our citizens, but there’s no risk here to education quality. Free public colleges would not “derail promising innovations”; they would compel colleges to make promising innovations.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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