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Higher Education Watch
What Would Free College Actually Look Like?

It’s one thing to hope for a free lunch. It’s another to expect to be served the whole menu.

In the American Conservative, Samuel Goldman makes an interesting observation about what “free college”—a proposal quickly gaining popularity on the American left—might look like if actually put into practice in the United States. Continental European nations, Goldman reminds us, are only able to afford free or near-free higher education systems by sharply limiting the range of services and amenities their universities offer:

A Washington Post piece recently praised Germany for allowing students from around the world to enroll at its universities without charge. What German universities offer in exchange was not discussed. More specifically, the piece didn’t mention the services German universities usually don’t provide. Here is a partial list:

  • Sports.
  • Dorms.
  • Elaborate food and other amenities.
  • Subsidized clubs and extracurricular activities.
  • Academic remediation.
  • Flexibility in majors.

German universities, in other words, are different from what most Americans have in mind when they think of college.

Much the same way that single-payer healthcare in the U.S. would be more affordable if Americans were willing to accept scaled back service, publicly funded college would be more affordable if students and parents changed their expectations for what college ought to be. Many Americans—especially, it should be noted, the upper-middle class students at elite universities who are feeling the Bern—expect their “college experience” to be a kind of all-encompassing four-year journey, complete with academic exploration, personal growth, and political awakening, with an army of highly paid administrators guiding them along the way.

There would be much to admire in a more European university model. American colleges have become too much like resorts, and the massive bureaucracies they employ are making students coddled and politically intolerant. At the same time, we aren’t prepared to say that the entire American higher education system should become completely Europeanized. The more student-centered American system—at least, the American system as it existed before the excesses of government intervention and PC—does offer something distinctive, and it is worth preserving, and reforming.

A better way to create a leaner, cheaper option for American students is through market forces, rather than diktat. Breaking the federal monopoly on accreditation, reining in reckless student loan subsidy programs, and reducing the regulatory barriers for alternative education systems could enable new education models to emerge. Students living at home are already earning recognized degrees in computer science through MOOCs at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs, and its possible to imagine such offerings growing and expanding to other fields. These students don’t get access to elaborate dining options and counseling services, but they do get access to what they need most—a degree.

Cheaper higher education, without all the economic excess and political rot, is within reach. But single-payer tuition is emphatically not the answer.

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  • JR

    But leaner, more efficient system will not have room for 8th diversity coordinator. And frankly, what’s the point of it all without that person?

  • Pait

    The argument seems to point out in the direction that free, no-frills education might be a good addition to the system that includes expensive private colleges and less expensive (but still far from free) public universities. That may be why the proposals for debt-free community colleges have traction among conservatives and liberals alike.

    • GS

      The Bell Curve. Cast not your pearls before swine. One could easily build an argument that it is worth it to provide an IQ 160 student with a totally free education and even a modest maintenance stipend/scholarship – all through the postdoctoral level at the hardest schools. But where to put the free education ceilings for those who are to the left of that 160er on the Bell Curve?

      • Pait

        It seems that you are replying to some notion that you oppose and that was triggered in your mind by my comment, not to the idea that a system with diverse types of education at different prices is effective and desirable, which is what I defended.

  • GS

    A free [tuition-free] college is perfectly possible in the United States – why, the United States Military Academy at West Point is one such. So, it is possible, but… it would have to come with very strong meritocratic selection and retention, with vocational outlook [no “lesbian basket-weaving in Picasso blue period” courses] and with some form of temporary contract/indenture on the graduates and dropouts to repay the costs.

    • FriendlyGoat

      The “temporary contract/indenture” of the military academy is two-way. In exchange for the requirement to serve for the convenience of the government at reasonable pay, the newly-minted officer is guaranteed an opening with some career opportunity. The military offers good benefits—-AND—the ever-present possibility of serving in a time/place of grave danger.

      • GS

        One would have to offer something more or less similar to the subsidized college graduates. Say, a BS degree in biology, chemistry, or physics would cost them a few years of work as a lab technician, at the technician’s wages.

        • FriendlyGoat

          One of the considerations to all this is that the openings for many of these jobs would be in the private sector—-for the benefit of the private sector during the “indenture” part. So we would need to be sure that any new plan had the private sector contributing heavily to the subsidized education.

          • GS

            It will be their wages [partially garnished/taxed during the indenture period] which will be used to fund the scheme.

          • FriendlyGoat

            We’d be wiser to get money from the business community up front.
            What we’re talking about here is one of those things where losses or upfront investments can be “socialized” while profits are “privatized”.

            Now that we have actually learned that terminology, we ought to plan its avoidance.

          • GS

            No. Fundamentally no: the moral hazard. It is the student/trainee who has to be on the hook, it will provide him or her with the necessary motivation.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The student trainee is on the hook now, for loans. You’re getting down to suggesting that the employer just function as a collection agent with a garnishment. That doesn’t sound like much change other than adding payroll withholding. We need the employer class “on the hook” too—-to provide the jobs.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Nope. Unless the student is on the hook, there is no feedback to prevent what we have now….lots of Grievance Studies majors who are unemployable but still consuming resources to continue their ‘educations’. Employers create jobs because it generates profits, not because they are dragooned into the latest social engineering scheme.
            Now of course I am against the whole ‘free college’ silliness from the start, though I do think that some sort of subsidized vocational training might not be unreasonable.

          • FriendlyGoat

            And why don’t we want the future employers of welders to subsidize welding school instead of all taxpayers subsidizing welding school?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Wait….I thought you were the one who believed in public education?
            Employers pay taxes, as do the rest of us, as a means of buying social goods. Are you suggesting that because they derive some special benefit from this particular social good that they should be explicitly charged a fee for it? Careful….think about the consequences of what you are suggesting…

          • FriendlyGoat

            I was just following up on your mention of “some sort” of subsidized vocational training—-presumably post-high school. What “sort”?

          • GS

            “what sort”? – an apprenticeship on the job would do, coupled with the temporary indenture aspect. Just like [very long ago] young Michelangelo was apprenticed to the Ghirlandaio brothers for 3 years at a modest pay [they had released him after 1 year] – it was a contract, binding on both parties. And in the end it turned out OK, nobody was objecting too loudly.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Old-fashioned apprenticeships are good examples of the costs and benefits of the transaction being limited to the the trainer and trainee with not a lot of subsidy coming from the rest of society. When a trainer today would be an incorporated entity, I think we ought to be thinking about this model more. We may be involving “everyone” with post-high-school training via taxes and government more than makes sense.

          • GS

            In that model Michelangelo was paid something like 4-6 florins a year – when a comparable work by a journeyman went for 10 to 30. The difference constituted “tuition”. And do not involve those who are unwilling and/or have nothing to do with it – it is the mortal sin of all leftards. The only part of your education I would be willing to contribute to would be birching.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Once upon a time, I learned not to waste time fooling with you—-but I forgot. You opened this thread with something almost sensible. I actually tried to engage you, only to find you would rather turn against your own arguments and talk in circles than actually develop an idea with any consistency. When you move on over to copying the “leftard” term from the political and moral fools who find it “cute”, I am suddenly reminded (again) that you share a great deal with them.

          • GS

            Go to North Korea, they would provide you with a job. In a free country nobody is obligated to give you a job, by the way. What one can do is provide referral/matching services.

          • FriendlyGoat

            So, you were blowing smoke about replicating the reciprocal model of the military academy? What’s new?

          • GS

            “What’s new?” – Since you are just as much a lefty as you have been previously, it is not “new” in any sense. By the way, I got through a tuition-free university – abroad. No need to blow smoke when one has direct experience to talk about. And it did suck, I can tell you.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You brought up and idea and then killed it yourself. That’s smoke.

          • GS

            ??? Care to think a little? I know that it hurts, but try. This tuition-free college setup would demand serious selectivity – which I mentioned up front. Actually, it would take very serious selectivity, close to what one observes with the likes of MIT. They say that the “prime college material” cutoff is somewhere around IQ 115 – for a free college I would jack it up to 125 or higher. And that would translate into the numbers of students on campuses dropping precipitously, from 40-50% of the age cohort to something like 4% or fewer. It will be free, but it will be not for everyone. When there are ten times fewer of them, but the quality is much better, the tuition-free college would become much more manageable. Cast not your pearls before swine.

          • FriendlyGoat

            There is nothing wrong with being selective for a program with limited slots and demanding curriculum. That’s what the military academies do. Now, once again, where is your idea for who pays for this and who potentially profits from it. In the military academies, the government pays and the government profits. In a private-sector model, these questions also need answers.

            As for your testiness, just because you were raised in the barn of the USSR doesn’t mean you get a ticket here to be a jackass.

          • GS

            Who on earth needs the programs with non-demanding curricula? Demanding programs are the only ones worth having and keeping. And when the number of students is smaller, finding job slots for them would be easier as well. Plus, the right-shoulder students tend to be more productive, ergo more valuable to their employers, have higher wages, and therefore would find it easier to repay through wages garnishing. More, since the student numbers would be much smaller, the charitable scholarships would take care of a proportionately greater share of them.

          • FriendlyGoat

            So, net,net, you’re in favor of educating fewer people and having a more robust garnishment system to follow those around for repayment.
            We’ll settle for that minimal contribution to the debate from you, I guess. Why you ever brought up the model of the military academies beats me. Probably because you thought no one would notice you had no follow-up in mind.

          • GS

            think again [it hurts]. I brought them up because they exist in the United States and exhibit almost all features necessary in a tuition-free college. They are highly selective [not necessarily by the optimal criteria, as they use political patronage], they have pretty limited number of student slots, they are strictly vocational, and they indenture.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Here is the list of majors at the U.S. Air Force Academy:

            Aeronautical Engineering Astronautical Engineering Behavioral Sciences Biology Chemistry Civil Engineering Computer Engineering Computer And Network SecurityComputer Science Economics Electrical Engineering English Foreign Area Studies General StudiesGeospatial Science History Legal Studies Management Mathematics Mechanical Engineering Meteorology Military & Strategic Studies Operations Research Philosophy Physics Political Science Systems Engineering

            “Strictly vocational”, of course.

          • GS

            yes, just as strictly vocational as the full list of military occupational specialties – which even includes cooks. More, there is an interesting feature in vocational setups: usually the number of slots for each specialty is planned in advance, and with reasonable precision.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Gee, I thought “Chemistry”, “Physics”, “Mathematics” and seven specialties of “Engineering” would get your attention. Nah, you need to bring up cooks.

          • GS

            Do you have anything better? There exist more than seven species of engineering, and more than one of chemistry, too. The point, which you again missed, and most probably deliberately, is that in such vocational education there is a fixed list of specialties [under the contemporary conditions, it is a large list], derived from the labor market for the graduates. More, in that list the number of slots is fixed for each specialty – an unavoidable element of central planning. Hence the inertia.

          • Clive Walters

            What does “ten times fewer’ mean? One tenth? 10%? If there are 10, then 10 times is 100; how is that fewer? Or is it 100 fewer than 10, leaving us with -90?

          • GS

            I see that you have been to a college. “ten times fewer” of them than there are now. Since the “students” are numerable entities, for them it is “more/fewer”. For the “substances” like water, it would be “ten times less”. Cf. the similar usage in “there is less water here [than there]” and “there are fewer people here [than there]”.

            But read “one tenth”, if it is easier for you.

          • CapitalHawk

            “we would need to be sure that any new plan had the private sector contributing heavily to the subsidized education”
            They already do “contribute heavily” to subsidized education. They pay the taxes that pay for ALL of the subsidy. I would say that is contributing heavily.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Seems to me that KPMG and Deloitte ought to be subsidizing accountants they will hire more than just everybody’s taxes footing any bill for subsidy.

  • Andrew Allison

    Please, pretty-please try and grasp the difference between single-payer insurance and single-provider healthcare. The former is clearly cost-effective (25% of the overhead of private insurance), the latter an abomination (witness VA). In order to preempt the Medicare fraud argument, let me point out that the fraud is not only perpetrated by the private providers but pales into insignificance compered to the waste (from multi-million dollar salaries) and abuse (the unnecessary procedures paid for) in the private insurance industry.

    • Fat_Man

      Contez nous cela, Vicomte.

      • Andrew Allison

        Je vous remercie, je pense que.

  • jeburke

    There is at least a close analog to the frills-free European systems in the City University of New York. CUNY’s four year colleges — City College, Brooklyn College, Queens College, Hunter College, etc — cost approxinately $8000 a year for state residents, including tuition, fees, and average book and supply costs. As commuter colleges, there are no rooming costs, and most students live in their family homes and commute by subway or bus. Many students are eligible for Pell grants up to about $5800, reducing the cost to about $2200. For the poorest, there are other sources of financial aid, making them essentially free. It’s not hard to do this, and the burden on city and state budgets is not great. But note that while it’s eminently affordable for most middle class families, it’s not free to all. There is simply no reason why it should be.

    By the way, the cost of attending one of CUNY’s two-year community colleges is even less.

  • jeburke

    This is an informative little book that provides lots of data on out of control college costs.
    http://www.amazon.com/Higher-Education-Colleges-Wasting-Kids/dp/031257343X

  • Fat_Man

    I wonder if Bernie’s kids know that in the European countries they want to imitate, a much smaller percentage of the population is allowed to go to the free colleges. In most of them, the student has to pass rigorus academic tests to get into an academic high school (lycee in France, gymnasium in Germany). After sucecssefully completing programs as rigorous as, or more rigorous than, American AP and IB programs, they are then put through a ringer of high stakes testing, that would make our special snowflakes plotz. Only after they pass those tests can they go to college. Late bloomer? Tough noogies.

    I could not wait until American students had to go through that kind of obstacle course to get into college. It’s not fair; It’s culturally insensitive; the children moan. Their parents shriek. The teachers start to complain about being forced to teach to the test.

    Shut up people. You wanted free? Well, you get what you pay for.

    • CapitalHawk

      No way. Disparate impact.

      • Fat_Man

        Then they can’t afford it.

        Nothing more expensive than free

    • Pait

      I do not think it is true anymore that a much smaller fraction of young people go to college in Europe than in the US. It used to, but the fraction has gone up in Europe more than in the US in recent decades. In my view the American system is still more flexible and works better, but the Europeans do some things right and have improved on some weaknesses.

      • Fat_Man

        If American kids had to take a test like the French Baccalauréat or the German Abitur to get into college, less than 10% of them would get in. Of those, 90% would be asian, and 10% would be other American kids with IQ’s well over 130.

        • Pait

          Perhaps that’s what would happen if present US high schoolers were to take present European exams. Your conjecture that this would happen if the US system changed is speculative, leaving aside the stuff about race and IQ which doesn’t even have a precise meaning. If college admission requirements were different, students who wanted to go to college would do what it took to get in.

          Be that as it may, your facts about the fraction of European students who go to college is out of date.

          • Fat_Man

            Your optimism about the American educational system is unwarranted. It is poor and extraordinarily resistant to change. The only way to get more American kids into college is to cut the standards. If European countries that used to have high standards have more kids going to college now, either secondary schools in Europe have become fantastic or the Europeans have cut their standards.

          • Pait

            The American educational system is extraordinarily diverse, with many problems as well is outstanding achievements. Your unqualified dismissal cannot be attributable to factual knowledge, only to prejudiced ignorance.

            As for Europe, letting your counterfactual reasoning take you where it may, OECD data shows that many countries have matched US tertiary education rates for 25-34 year olds – France to give a notable example. The US is far ahead among 55-64 year olds, so to give a charitable explanation, this part of your thinking is based on the facts from 30 years ago.

          • Fat_Man

            What outstanding achievements would you be thinking of. My kids went through top rated secondary schools and top rated colleges. I didn’t see anything that was better than it was in my day. And I don’t see it now. If that is what Europe is doing to their children, they have dumbed down their schools.

            The American educational system is the inevitable result of what de Tocquville called democracy, and the misapplication of politicized industrial unionism. It is dumbed down, politicized, immured in bureaucratic sclerosis, and armor plated against change.

            The recent “political” kerfuffles at what are supposed to be the very best colleges in the country have demonstrated that the students have either not been taught, or have not learned anything. They are ignorant, voluble, and rude, and they are absolutely convinced of their knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. This have been taught by faculty who have narrowly specialized in political nonsense, and who have no knowledge to impart, even if they do look like America, sort of.

            I will admit that there are islands of excellence in the “hard” sciences. My son majored in mathematics as an undergraduate, and has returned to school to seek an advanced degree in the subject. It cannot be dumbed down. Any advanced student must learn certain theorems, proofs, and algorithms. All of which are the same everywhere in this world, or any other world. And, if an engineer is not taught the correct methods, the bridge will fall down, physician, medicine, death.

            But, outside of those islands it is a desert.

            If that is what Europeans are doing to their children, shame on them, they should know better.

          • Pait

            I read this rant as a confirmation that your arguments are based on ideology, not facts.

          • Fat_Man

            You obviously don’t know how to read.

          • Pait

            I take this as a form of compliment.

            Incidentally, your belief that engineering education is about being taught correct methods and algorithms is completely off. For that we have wikipedia, and before, books. Ask your son what he is learning in his advanced studies, and how.

          • Fat_Man

            My son says he is learning a great deal in his program. He learns it the old fashioned way by attending class, reading the assignments, and doing his problem sets. You can’t dumb down math. He is only sorry, that he will not be able to take all the courses he wants to take in a 5 year program.

            But, the “social sciences” are a joke: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/27/academia-is-losing-its-mind/

            BTW, no compliment was intended.

          • Pait

            I am sure he is learning a lot! And that the more he learns, the more he discovers that he doesn’t yet know!

            I don’t think you understand what and how one learns. A list of “correct methods”, those we engineers have already programed into computers nowadays. They are part of an education, but rote learning of theorems and proofs is not how engineering education works.

            I understood that your compliment was involuntary, thanks for reminding me.

  • ljgude

    One of the heffalumps in the room is what I call the Lake Wobegone syndrome in American eduction. All are children are above average so the all have to to college. Learn to become an Diesel mechanic? Quel Horreur. But it was Bismarck who saw how well the British industrial revolution was doing with well trained tradesmen and decreed that Germany would train twice as many. They still have superb technical workers keeping little firms like Mercedes and BMW humming along while those workers take home a very nice paycheck. In the US my friend Harry is the best all around mechanic I’ve ever known – no education, all talent. Mercedes spotted his son working as an untrained Diesel mechanic and immediately offered him $100,000 a year to go to their heavy equipment Diesel mechanics school that they have to run themselves because the US ‘ain’t got none they think is good enough’. So I think that country club brick and mortar schools are already being disintermediated by things like Computer Certificates which are recognized by the industry taught on line by the likes of IT Pro TV and Lynda.com. My son went off to community college and got an internship with a small computer software house. He isn’t a bad programmer, but he is an ace at customer service. He is working full time for them now and has chucked college which never motivated him anyway. He is just one of those charmed kids that can pick his way through the chaos of a disintegrating system.

  • Anthony

    “It is an intolerable scandal that college costs, even at public universities, have been permitted to skyrocket in the U.S….The Sanders theme that is closest to my heart is his call for free public universities. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, my father, returning from active duty as a paratrooper in occupied Japan, became the first member of his large family to attend college.” (Camille Paglia) http://www.salon.com/2016/02/25/fight_the_soulless_juggernaut_big_money_machine_politics_and_the_real_issue_separating_sander

  • FriendlyGoat

    Whatever new trend we see, we can make one prediction with absolute certainty. NOTHING is going to happen which in any way diminishes the high end of the college football pipeline. The big football schools are going to manage to survive and retain big football.

    • f1b0nacc1

      We absolutely agree….are you as disgusted by this as I am?

      • FriendlyGoat

        Yes. I have no argument against the fact that all football players who ascend through scholarships work VERY hard (at football) to make it. I have no argument that some maneuvers by some players are not amazing feats or not entertaining to watch. I have no argument that some players are not QUALITY guys off the field as well as on.

        HOWEVER, first of all, not only do I not care for being personally tackled, I have never felt any desire to tackle someone else for any reason other than grave emergency. Having every play be basically a wreck involving as many as all 22 players has always struck me as profoundly stupid. Now, my personal life prejudices in this regard seem to be vindicated by a growing body of evidence that repetitive brain injury is a dumb thing for society to be celebrating with over 2,000,000 high schoolers each season.

        THEN, there is the social aspect of the stadiums which I find appalling, even in the suites. (Yes, I have been in banking and insurance settings in those places a few times.) THEN, there is the public-financing aspect of this spectacle from high school through many pro stadiums. THEN, there is the fact that pro football got anti-trust exemptions which are not justified by anything. THEN, there is the “use” of women for the “cheerleading” all through the pipeline. THEN, there is the absurdity of coaches being the highest-paid public employees in the country. THEN, there is the lake of beer to fuel the fans. It’s a long list.

        And, nobody with power to do anything about any of it gives one hoot what I think.

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