Free College: What Could Be Better?

Some people have an unshakable belief in the ability of government to solve problems. We hear lots of demands, for example, that the government fix all the problems in our health care system with a “single payer” system where it pays the bills and writes the rules.

Robert Samuels, who teaches writing at UCLA and serves as president of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, is one of those people. He has just written a book entitled Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free in which he examines (often accurately) the problems that beset higher education and then arrives at the absurd conclusion that those problems would be solved if only we would turn it over to federal politicians and bureaucrats.

Let me first praise the book where praise is due.

Samuels understands that the U.S. is spending a huge amount on higher education but getting a pitiable return for it in learning terms.  He identifies several reasons why that is the case.

Foremost is the fact that many public universities—and while most of Samuels’ criticisms also apply to private research universities, they are not his target—have been taken over by the quest for prestige and the inflow of money that it brings. He says that they act in a “corporative” style, evidently thinking that most readers will share his aversion to corporations.

Putting aside a terminological battle, Samuels is correct that the leaders of most big public universities merely pay lip service to educating their undergraduates while they pursue the money and fame that come from hiring “star” professors, building “top” graduate departments, and landing juicy research grants.

The trouble with the research mania is that it gives undergraduates the short end of the stick. (Murray Sperber made the same argument in Beer and Circus, which Samuels cites.) When research dominates, university officials herd students into huge lecture sections where tenured faculty members do little teaching, leaving that largely to their grad students.

That arrangement is not very good for the undergrads, who would learn far more in a small class where there would be some interaction with the professor.  It is, however, good for the university, which then has temporary jobs for all the grad students it lures into PhD programs.

Of course, not all courses at research universities are those enormous lecture sections, but Samuels argues that the mentality engendered by those classes (mostly encountered in the freshman year) spills over into small classes, writing, “Many teachers of small classes at large research universities find it difficult to get students to participate in class discussions, and students report that they are not comfortable developing their own arguments or research projects because they are used to simply listening to expert professors who tell them what to think and know.”

There may well be a kernel of truth in this, but Samuels is blind to a much more important reason why many college students (including those who never had to take one of those huge lecture classes) are disengaged from learning, namely that their K-12 years did nothing to instill a eagerness for learning in them. I’ll return to this point later, because Samuels’ solution to our higher education problems is to turn it into something just like our K-12 morass.

What else is wrong, besides the research mania?

Samuels also indicts the high cost of college athletics, the tendency for university leaders to spend loads of money on administrators, the lack of incentives for professors to devote much effort to their undergrads (particularly when it comes to written assignments), the waste of money on fancy technology, and the growing use of PowerPoint as a teaching crutch. All of those criticisms are well-founded, but those problems are not unique to the large public research universities.

One more trend that bothers Samuels is the rise of online courses. His opposition to them, however, seems grounded in nothing more than a desire to keep as many professors employed as possible. Many students find that online courses work very well for them and no one has to take any. Attacking online education (and other pet peeves thrown in here and there) only serves to damage the credibility of the book.

And now we reach the solution Samuels offers. That solution doesn’t merely damage the book, but makes it into something like a utopian novel.

He wants to make all public higher education in the U.S. free to the students. No tuition to pay; no fees or room and board. He calculates the cost of doing that at $128 billion, based upon enrollment numbers for 2009-10. But, he explains, “it might be possible to make all public higher education free just by using current resources in a more effective manner.” That $128 billion figure could be reduced greatly “by lowering the spending on administration, athletics, housing, dining, amenities, research, and graduate education.”

Moreover, with federal regulators in charge, we’ll be able to ensure that “every student is taught in a small class by an expert teacher who has academic freedom and job security.”

Better still, those teachers will, Samuels thinks, change to more effective methods. He laments that many today don’t teach in ways that “reach the whole student.” They should (and apparently will, once freed from the stifling status quo) figure out how “to use movie clips or music to cater to the students’ different learning styles.” And they will move away from the old teacher-centered model of instruction (which “causes students to internalize the message that their own views and knowledge do not count”) and toward a more student-centered approach with less testing (which harms students’ mental health) and more emphasis on “empathy, emotion and intuition.”

(An aside: from the comments of his students, we find that many like his class, but don’t think they learn much.)

Doubts about this plan can be discarded because, Samuels informs us, Finland has successfully reformed its K-12 system to make it free, non-competitive, and “respectful” of teachers. Ergo, the same thing will work for higher ed in the United States.

However well the Finns do with their K-12 system, Finland is about as similar to the U.S. as, say, North Dakota is.

A quick list of the major objections to Samuels’ proposal (putting aside the constitutional problem that public higher education is a state function) would include the following.

It would destroy much of private higher education. Private colleges and universities that rely on tuition would lose a lot of their students. Why pay $25,000 and up if you can go to a public college or university for free? The nation has many small private schools, often providing the kind of education that Samuels favors (at least the small classes taught by real professors), but their enrollments would shrivel if public colleges were free.

It would exacerbate the problem of students going to college who ought to pursue some other path after high school. As it is, we have a large number of academically weak and disengaged students who go to college, but some decide against it on the grounds that the cost is too high for the questionable benefits. Take away the cost deterrent, and we would have more of those students. Samuels declares that he wants more people to graduate from college, but obviously doesn’t realize that college is a poor choice for kids who aren’t prepared for or interested in academic work.

The cost estimate is low. Samuels forgets the new influx of students from private colleges and those who otherwise would have not have gone.

It would mean less effort by a substantial percentage of students. If neither they nor their parents are paying anything for them to attend, many students will treat college like an extended vacation. (Many already do that, but undoubtedly more would if it were free.) People tend to take better care of things they have paid for and that includes education, as economist Aysegul Sahin argued in this paper. 

It would do little or nothing to change the incentives facing public college leaders. Even if federal bureaucrats are wagging their fingers at them, they’ll still want to keep the alumni happy with sports, to keep the faculty happy with low teaching loads and no supervision, and they’ll still want to keep the students happy with costly amenities and the sort of low-expectation courses they desire.

What federally-funded “free” college would give us would be another K-12 system, with money flowing to schools that are run bureaucratically, and primarily for the benefit of the employees of the system, not the students. Public K-12 is a costly failure and there is no reason to think that a college version would be different.

The book does, however, raise a crucial question: If we want better education for less money, how do we get it?

We get it the same way we get good results in other goods and services—free market competition. The deluge of books and articles on the woes of higher education started after the federal government began trying to improve it under President Johnson’s “Great Society.”

Contrary to what Robert Samuels says, we need to reduce the federal role, not greatly increase it.