Can American Higher Education Be Free?

By Anastasia Wilson

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With average tuition at public universities averaging $8,893 and private universities tallying in at a whopping $30,094 (without books, room, and board!), the answer at a glance appears to be an astounding “No! We can barely afford college as it is!” Politically, at a time of fiscal austerity and anti-tax sentiment, the possibility of free public college in the United States seems like a pipe dream at best.

But, there are several compelling arguments for why the answer should actually be “Yes, college can and should be free”.

California union leader Bob Samuels argues on the contrary in his new book “Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free”. Samuels boldly proposes that government spending on higher education be redirected such that tuition and fees at public universities and community college can be free to all students. Further, he suggests that colleges skip the fancy athletics and trim their bloated administration to focus on reducing class sizes and hiring qualified instructors.

Evidence already exists to support some of Samuels’s claims. First, non-educational spending (and especially spending on athletics) at universities and colleges has grown over the past decade. “Country club” universities with climbing walls, state of the art gyms, celebrity sports teams, and apparently even “nap pods” focus their budgets on amenities instead of quality instruction. Former president of Miami University James Garland warned, “I just think there’s a movement these days among universities that are able to do this, to turn themselves into country clubs. But inevitably that comes at expense of academic rigor and the quality of the academic program.” Samuels argues that much of this lavish spending is meant to pacify students grappling with colleges unable to serve them as students, with enormous class sizes, lack of individual academic attention, and crushing student debt burdens.

Second, recent studies have shown that growth in college administrators has ballooned in the past few decades. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting writes that, “The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.” Meanwhile, less is being spent on quality instruction as colleges shift away from tenured full-time professors towards reliance on low-paid, precarious adjunct and graduate student labor. This shift reflects how colleges more and more model themselves after for-profit business; treating students like consumers of country club amenities and administrators like CEOs.

With this in mind, Samuels argues that redirecting resources to the actual productive activity of educating students will be more economically efficient and reduce the bloat, allowing public higher education to be completely free of cost, thereby avoiding the crushing student debt that is now a norm for American students.

Economically speaking, Samuels’s plan might just be feasible (although the cost of rebuilding a broken system would likely be higher than anticipated). Recently, the Atlantic added up the total expenditures that individuals spent on public colleges using Department of Education data. They estimated that in total spending on public colleges was about $62.6 billion- a total less than the total $69 billion spent just on financial aid program, excluding student loans. While this crude estimate excludes non-Federal aid contributing to covering college expenses, the point is that, “starting from scratch, Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today.”

New ideas and possibilities for free and accessible public higher education are in need, too. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that, “Among the many findings, the United States’ historical advantage in producing higher education graduates has eroded: it ranks fifth in terms of postsecondary education attainment among 25-64-year-olds, but 12th when only 25- to 34-year-olds are considered.”

Free public higher education then may not just be feasible, but also an economic necessity in a globalized economy.