Free College, Academic Freedom, and Choice

Free college is apparently all the rage on the left these days. For the purposes of discussion, let’s assume we find a way to actually fund free tuition, materials, and room and board at all public colleges in America. But even if that’s the case, free college isn’t something that liberals should be quick to embrace.

For starters, what would free college do to academic freedom? If higher education is a public good, it follows that the content of higher education is a question for the democratic process. But academic freedom is about the freedom to teach and learn about topics that may not be popular. We already see skirmishes over, for instance, whether the government should fund political science or climate change research. If college was 100% publicly funded, we’d probably get more of that, similar to how state legislatures routinely try to change the content of history books and teach creationism in public schools.

Even if we set aside high profile issues like evolution and climate change, free college raises concerns simply because it shifts the conversation from “what do students want to learn?” to “what’s best for society?”. When that happens, it’s tempting to view college primarily as a vocational program, or as Bernie Sanders puts it, “If our economy is to be strong, we need the best educated work force in the world.” And if we’re talking about jobs and employment, it’s likely that legislators would emphasize, say, engineering and science over French literature or African-American studies.

You might be OK with that, but consider that private colleges will still exist in this brave new world. Because free public college would crowd out some schools (including, admittedly, some that deserve to be shut down), the private schools that survive would probably be on the upper end of the spectrum — Ivies and wealthy schools to which you can secure admission with a healthy donation. Those schools will still be teaching liberal arts. And if the progressive project is to create a more egalitarian society, it’s worth considering how egalitarian it is to grant the elite the luxury of a liberal arts education while pressuring everyone else into programs designed to maximize economic productivity.

Now you might say that’s unfortunate but limited free college is preferable to no free college at all, right? But consider the alternative. Why is paying for college better than simply giving an equivalent amount of cash to every 18-year-old in America? College doesn’t benefit from economies of scale in the way that a public transit line or police force or health insurance pool does. If we have enough to send you to school, we also have enough to just give you a decent chunk of cash.

If you want to spend that cash on college, great! Because the choice to spend this cash on college is driven by individual students rather than by the government, it’s harder to use that cash to limit academic freedom or emphasize certain subject areas to the detriment of others.

Just as importantly though, cash can also help young adults who weren’t college bound to begin with — people who might instead use choose to start a small business, raise a family, travel abroad, or pursue alternative forms of education. If the goal is to promote egalitarianism, simple cash permits progressives to reach a wider swath of people than just focusing on higher education costs.

At the end of the day, we might still say that the positive externalities of incentivizing people to go to college outweigh the alternatives–and if those people can’t get into or go to a four-year school even with state assistance, that’s their problem. Or maybe we’re just making a normative judgement about how young people should be spending their time.

But I suspect that many liberals support free college because they believe that a liberal arts education is empowering in ways that vocational school or community college is not. Or that free college is a way to combat inequality and promote social justice. If that’s the case, then free college probably isn’t the best way forward.

Cross-posted on Medium.