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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