Because of the leftist ascent in the Maryland Democratic Party, Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, graduate of Columbia University, and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is running for Governor on a platform in the mold of Senator Bernie Sanders’s socialist promises. As a faculty member of the University of Maryland in College Park, I take a personal as well as an intellectual interest in the consequences of his advocacy of tuition- and debt-free college. As it happens, too, debate over the proposition for tuition-free college here in Maryland will not stay in Maryland, since such proposals are now being mooted in other states. (Jealous’s platform does not clarify what differences there are between “debt free” and “tuition free” college.) If a tuition-free scheme were implemented in Maryland, it would receive massive attention from the Washington Post and thus become an event of national significance.
I hope that does not happen. In all cases, the irony is that these supposedly “progressive” proposals would, if implemented, have a disastrous impact on precisely those public institutions whose main beneficiaries have been the broad-income strata of our society. Jealous has emphatically rejected the idea that he is a socialist but the fact remains that in the name of leftist utopias and “democratic socialism,” supporters of tuition-free university would be responsible for destroying the only universities most people can afford. If these plans were to spread, young people around the country would lose access to educational opportunities that were once within the grasp of their parents and grandparents.
Moreover, if the Democratic Party were to become closely associated in the public mind with tuition-free or debt-free schemes at public universities on the national level and help manage to get such schemes implemented, its candidates could suffer a huge backlash for their unintended but predictable outcomes. The fact that many Democratic advocates for such schemes—including Ben Jealous—have degrees from expensive private universities would certainly become grist for partisan attacks; politicians who rail against our “out of touch elites” would gain a sharp new arrow for their quiver.
Jealous’s gubernatorial platform in Maryland states that he would “end of the era of mass incarceration and use the savings to fund initiatives that will eventually make college tuition free.” Leaving aside for the moment whether “mass incarceration” is an accurate term if extended to include those convicted of violent crimes, not to mention the many other issues wound up in such a complex problem, Jealous’s platform offers no specifics about how much money such a policy would save. It doesn’t persuade that it would save any money at all, since many of those released from prison would continue to require some forms of public assistance.
Jealous proposes that the other, and no doubt the primary, source of funding to replace tuition revenue would come from raising state income taxes on the wealthy. But beyond referring to the “top 1 percent,” no details as to the income levels at which state income taxes would increase, or how much they would increase, are provided. Nor, despite the ready availability of fiscal data about Maryland’s public universities, is there any estimate at all as to how much money would need to be raised to fund higher education at current levels.
In fact, tuition-free college would severely damage the University of Maryland in College Park and other public universities to which it might be applied. The University of Maryland in College Park has approximately 4,600 faculty, 10,600 graduate students, and almost 30,000 undergraduates. The faculty-student ratio is 17 to 1; about 45 percent of classes seat 20 students or less. Some of our ninety degree-granting departments are ranked in the top 25 nationally and many scholars in the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities are leaders in their fields. Many have distinguished national and international reputations often comparable to or better than their peers at more expensive private universities. About 75 percent of the students in College Park are Maryland residents; 24 percent are non-residents; about 43 percent are from minority communities both resident and non-resident.
Teaching, research, and other aspects of the University are expensive, and they have gotten more expensive in recent years at nearly every college and university in the country. We can debate the actual sources of cost inflation in education, health care, transportation, and other public services niches of the economy. But education, like health care, is one of those niches where the potential for substituting capital for labor is very limited. In this essay, I do not presume to resolve the issue about why costs have risen. The fact remains that public four-year colleges and universities such at the University of Maryland have tuitions that are about one-fourth to one-fifth as much as those of their private counterparts, while still offering comparable educational opportunities. Continued significant taxpayer support is essential if this long-standing public policy is to continue.
The University’s total operating budget for 2018 was just over $2 billion, about twice what it was in 2003. The number of undergraduate and graduate students attending has just increased from slightly more than 33,000 in 2000 to 39,000 today. Of that $2 billion, about $1.6 billion comes from “unrestricted revenue,” that is, money which can be used as chosen by the University administration, rather than as directed by government or private contracts. In a February Washington Post interview, Wallace Loh, the President of the University, pointed out that twenty years ago 60 percent of the University budget came from state funding. Today, mirroring a trend of declining state funding for higher education around the country, that figure stands at 45 percent. State funding for the University of Maryland at College Park for fiscal year 2018 is just over $514 million; revenue from tuition and fees from undergraduates and graduates, both resident and non-resident, is about $621.7 million. State funding thus amounts to about 25 percent while tuition and fees provide about 30 percent of the University’s total operating budget. But as Loh explained to the editors of the Post, tuition and fees now account for more than 40 percent of the University’s unrestricted revenue stream. As state funding has declined, pressure to increase tuition has grown.
According to figures provided by the Office of the Provost using FY 2018 end-of-fiscal-year financial reports, the tuition from undergraduates and graduates, both resident and non-resident, came to $436,723,286. Students at Maryland and other universities must also pay mandatory fees not included in tuition covering items such as technology (internet access), athletics, shuttle bus service, student union, student activities, recreation services, performance arts, and the health center. Hence, if advocates of “tuition-free college” were to find a substitute source of revenue, they would have to come up with either $436.7 million to cover lost tuition revenue, or $621.7 million if they also wanted to cover expenses for mandatory fees. This is a huge amount of money in either case to find on an annual basis to keep the University’s budget from sinking into the red.
Undergraduate in-state tuition and fees in 2018 at the University of Maryland (UMD) is $10,595; out-of-state tuition is $35,216. (Jealous’s platform does not indicate if he is also advocating tuition or debt free college for non-resident undergraduates and graduates. It is hard to imagine that he would ask Maryland taxpayers to cover those costs. The absence of resident tuition would likely lead to pressure to increase non-resident tuition which in turn would probably lead to a reduction in students from out of state and with that a reduction in the significant revenue that comes from non-resident tuition, thus compounding the revenue loss.) Tuition rates at the University of Maryland are higher than they were in real dollars twenty years ago, but they are lower than those at many of our peer public research and teaching institutions. The relatively low cost of tuition in College Park continues to give it a well-deserved reputation of being one of the national “bargains” in American higher education. Here are a few pertinent comparisons: University of Virginia in-state tuition in 2018 is $13,348, while out-of-state is $43,194; Rutgers, New Brunswick, $14,974 and $31,282; Penn State, $18,436 and $33,664; and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, $14,934 and $49,022.
Costs at private universities average about five times as much as College Park. For example, tuition for 2018 at Johns Hopkins, the leading private university in Maryland, is $53,740. My colleagues at the History Department at Johns Hopkins are an excellent group, but many of my peers in the History Department in College Park are just as excellent. No one familiar with the two Departments would claim that the History Department at Hopkins is five times better than ours. What is true of the Department of History is true of the other departments in comparable fields in both institutions. In the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland taxpayers get a very good return on their money. And by the way, Maryland taxpayers may be surprised to learn that the state ranks 25th in the country, behind not just California and New York but also Iowa and Nebraska, in state income tax rates. That makes the bargain even more impressive. Maryland’s comparatively modest state income taxes compared to other affluent states creates the possibility for a modest income tax increase to expand funding for education.
Maryland is a comparatively wealthy state. According to Census figures, the median family annual income in Maryland in 2016 was $76,596, the highest in the nation. Maryland median family income adjusted for the cost of living ($69,205) is also the highest in the nation. As quoted in the Washington Post interview cited above, President Loh stressed the key implication of Marylander’s high median income and relatively modest student tuition at its public universities: “Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the union . . . with one of the lowest tuitions. It is a case of the state subsidizing the upper middle class.”
Loh estimated the actual cost of an undergraduate education in College Park to be around $32,000. Thus our students, including those from middle and upper-middle class families, benefit greatly from a public good financed by all taxpayers. Loh understands that no politician wants to run for office on a platform of raising tuition, but there is nevertheless a good case to be made for a modest increase in tuition, both because it would help restore previous cuts and because it would diminish economic inequality in the state by transferring less wealth upwards than is now the case.
One of the arguments for tuition-free public universities is that more first-generation college graduates promise broad economic benefits statewide and beyond. It is unfortunate when qualified applicants do not attend college because of cost or the inability to secure loans. But the economic benefits of having more college-educated citizens would be still stronger if more vocational-track programs were available to match labor market needs. As is well known, community colleges furnish a great deal of available vocational education, and here proposals for free or deeply subsidized tuition make a lot more sense. Jealous supports this idea, but so does Maryland’s incumbent Republican Governor Larry Hogan.
What exactly, then, constitutes the destructive potential of tuition-free or debt-free university schemes? The case for a modest income tax increase, both to restore cuts in public funding for the state’s public universities and to mitigate the state’s subsidies to the upper middle class, might past muster. It would have even more appeal if it were joined to a plan to expand and subsidize community college capacity. Wallace Lon’s reasonable case for a modest increase in tuition is an example of the unpopularity of fiscal realism. But a tuition-free or debt-free college scheme—which would require an additional $400-600 million annually—would require a massive tax increase that, even if passed by the State Assembly, would only make up for lost tuition revenue; it would not restore past annual reductions in state funding, and it would not expand vocational training capacities in the state. So Maryland taxpayers might suffer the pain of significantly increased taxes without the pleasure of seeing the restoration of the cuts in funding to our public universities of recent decades.
In reality, however, if the University of Maryland in College Park lost more than 40 percent of its unrestricted revenue—between $436 and $621 million—those funds would probably not be replaced with increased taxes. After all, it’s one thing to make irresponsible promises to win an election, but quite another to get the Maryland State House to vote to spend that money. It won’t: Most Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans would oppose massive property and income tax increases on the scale that would be needed to replace tuition revenue. Instead, as a result, the University of Maryland in College Park would be devastated by forced program and service cuts.
Advocates of tuition-free college never discuss what draconian cuts they would advocate if they were unable to get the large tax increases that their plans would require. What degree programs and departments would they eliminate? How many faculty and staff would be laid off? Which research programs would end? How would the university retain excellent faculty who were tempted to flee the sinking ship? How many graduate student teaching assistants would they want to disappear? While the excellence of the University would be shredded, tuition-free college policies would have no impact on private universities such as Johns Hopkins, or on public universities in other states that maintained tuition as a source of revenue.
As an historian of modern European, especially modern German history, I have traveled regularly to Europe and Germany over the past four decades for research, teaching, lectures, and conferences. I know Germany’s system of publicly funded, tuition-free universities very well. It includes many fine scholars, superb students, and impressive universities. However, in Germany and in Europe’s public universities in general, faculties are smaller, classes are bigger, teaching loads are heavier, and the ability of the faculty to combine research with teaching is significantly less than it is in U.S. public state research and teaching universities. Moreover, the fact that the European universities do not have the financial support that comes from tuition means smaller faculties and thus that many of their finest PhDs cannot get positions in their own countries. Europe’s brain drain is our gain, evident in the many European scholars now teaching at American universities and colleges.
The invention of public universities funded with a taxpayer contributions and modest student tuition is one of the greatest accomplishments of American public life in the past 150 years. It has enabled millions of Americans and thousands of Marylanders to enjoy what had previously been the privilege of a small elite. An essential component of American democracy has been the effort to make an excellent college education accessible to broader and broader strata of our society. The University of Maryland in College Park and the flagship research and teaching universities all over the United States are jewels of this democratic aspiration. Preservation, not destruction, of these historically unique and remarkably successful public institutions should be our goal.
The literature on the causes and consequences of declining state funding for higher education around the country is extensive. On the connection between such decline and increases in student tuition see Rick Seltzer, “State Funding Cuts Matter,” Inside Higher Education, July 24, 2017.