Friday, November 8, 2013

"Free" College is Anything But Free

An obscure college professor, Robert Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, is calling for all "public"—i.e., government—colleges to be "free." 

So, how would this be paid for? In a piece published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, For Public Colleges, The Best Tuition is No Tuition, Samuels calls for all money currently "spent" by the government on higher education in America to be diverted to cover the $130 billion cost (his estimate) of "free" government colleges.

What are these "expenditures"? Samuels explains:

While $130-billion seems like a large figure, we need to remember that in 2010, the federal government spent more than $30-billion on Pell Grants and $104-billion on student loans, and the states spent at least $10-billion on financial aid for universities and colleges and an additional $76-billion for direct support of higher education. Furthermore, looking at various state and federal tax breaks and deductions for tuition, it might be possible to make all public higher education free by just using current resources in a more effective manner.

Notice that Samuels wrongly assumes that people keeping more of the money they earn through "various state and federal tax breaks and deductions for tuition" is money belonging to the government, rather than the people keeping more of the money earned and spending it as they judge best. Notice also that money seized from taxpayers to fund loans that are intended to be paid back to taxpayers would leave taxpayers on the hook for the entire amount, which would mean tax increases for taxpayers. Samuels would simply have the government seize more money from productive taxpayers, and add it to the tax-funded pile of money that covers direct grants such as the Pell handouts. 

"Free" college is anything but free. 

What about the freedom of productive Americans who will be taxed to pay for the "free" college, thus denying them their right to spend their own money according to their own judgment and convictions?

Schools, particularly colleges, are the intellectual center of the culture. What will become of academic and intellectual freedom when government dictates higher education curriculum and school governance through conditions attached to government checks? If you think I'm exaggerating, just listen to Obama, who recently said:

"We’ll [the government] never have enough loan money, we’ll never have enough grant money, to keep up with costs that are going up 5, 6, 7 percent a year.  We've got to get more out of what we pay for. 
"In the coming months, I will lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up the system, tackle rising costs, and improve value for middle-class students and their families.  It is critical that we make sure that college is affordable for every single American who’s willing to work for it."  

When the government pays, costs inexorably rise. When costs rise, government will have to step in and control costs—which means, control curriculum and governance. Samuels inadvertently acknowledges as much:

Replacing the current mix of financial aid, institutional aid, tax subsidies, and grants with direct support for public institutions would give the government a way to control costs at both public and private universities and colleges. The federal government could also require states to maintain their support for public institutions in return for increased federal support. And once we stabilize financial support and make higher education free, there will be no need for so many students and institutions to go into debt.

And what of the students' freedom? What will happen when graduates are told they must "give back" in return for their government-financed education: When students are told they must abandon or put on hold their own life's goals in order to fulfill some "national need?" Already, mandatory "community service"—a euphemism for submission to the state—is required for graduation from many tax-funded high schools. Soviet-style mandatory career placement, anyone? 

And what will become of private colleges once they are forced to compete against the "free" public colleges?

Apparently, Samuels sees no moral difference between private, voluntarily funded education and forcible tax-funded education; between self-reliance and being a ward of the state; between independent and politically controlled educational institutions. There is nothing "free" about government control of young peoples' lives and the intellectual life of the culture.

Samuel's call for "free" public college may at first seem radical. But, in fact, it is a logical extension of past government intrusions into education, stretching back to the beginning of tax-funded primary education in the 19th Century. 

In a NJ Star-Ledger interview with Jim Namiotka, Samuels cited the government's takeover of high schools as precedent. In answer to questions about how to convince a skeptical public, Samuels said:

This is similar to what happened at the beginning of the 20th century with high school. Very few people went to high school; now, we accept that high school is a universal public good that’s paid out of tax dollars. We have to apply that same idea to college.

Samuels goes on to cite Thomas Jefferson in support of his proposal. 

Samuels argument shows that, while "free" college may not be politically feasible today, tomorrow will be another story, because he is on the side of history. Already, he has garnered the support of prominent politicians; e.g., New York Representative Charlie Rangel. President Obama has taken a big step in that direction when he cut the banks out of the student loan program, making the federal government the direct lender. Does anyone believe he doesn't support Samuels and Rangel, but for political calculations?

What Samuel's reasoning shows is that it won't be enough for liberty advocates to oppose the "free" college scheme in isolation. We'll lose. How to fight "free" college in the face of Samuel's comparison to "free" high schools? To defeat the likes of Samuels and Rangel, the idea of government-funded education must be attacked at its root.

Our Founders were brilliant activists who precipitated the most glorious revolution in mankind's history, and Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorites. But they were not perfect. One of the biggest mistakes our Founders made was to not separate education from state in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of church and state. If we had "free," tax-funded religion, we wouldn't have freedom of religion.

"Free" college is the worst idea to come along since "free" high schools. To safeguard freedom, we should be moving in the opposite direction; phaseout and constitutionally forbid tax-funded schools. We need to add to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ."


On "Nightmare" College Debt

The New Abolitionism: Why Education Emancipation is the Moral Imperative of our Time—C. Bradley Thompson

Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits

No comments: