Should higher education in the United States be free? An examination of available evidence suggests that it should be. I hope to go through a number of the most persuasive argumens as to why higher education in the United States should be regarded as a public good (like clean air or working highways) rather than as a market commodity (like iPhones or Furbies). The United States is definitely out of step with the rest of the world, which does not attempt to make higher education financially inaccessible to qualified applicants. The current situation with the cost of higher education in America is untenable, as students complete their studies with crippling amounts of debt. The level of student debt has additional unexpected effects on the economic and social life of the nation, as I hope to demonstrate. Moreover recent attempts to provide free higher education, done experimentally at the local level, have showed tremendous promise -- and an examination of what this means will demonstrate that a plan could easily be put into place to provide for more. Moreover, the changing nature of education may ultimately serve to make such a plan more feasible in future. For these reasons, and for others, I hope to demonstrate that the idea of providing free higher education to Amerian students is not a pie-in-the-sky daydream, but a plan that urgently requires realization on the national level.
For a start, we should examine the United States in comparison to other comparable nations. Until 1998 in Great Britain, higher education was entirely free to all qualified applicants -- this included such legendary and hallowed institutions as Oxford University and Cambridge University, where admitted students had their fees paid for by the government. Even after an economic slowdown that has taken place in Britain (as well as the world more generally) since 1998, the introduction of university fees has been capped at a little more than the equivalent of 5,000 dollars per year. To put this in perspective, that is approximately one tenth of what one year at an American institution like Harvard or Yale costs. The chief difference between Britain and America in this regard is not economic -- if anything America remains more economically productive than Britain, and could more easily afford a comparable level of expenditure. Rather the chief difference is an ideological one. In Britain, higher education is not regarded as a luxury but rather as a necessity; it is not seen as a consumer item but rather as a public good, whose promotion is well within the purview of governmental responsibility. Nor is the British model some sort of bizarre outlier -- instead, it is essentially the model for most nations with comparable income levels and political systems to the United States (like Canada, Australia, Germany or France). This is merely a question of where national priorities lie.
There is no question that American higher education is currently, in 2014, undergoing a severe crisis. This is borne out by statistical evidence. A 2012 Time Magazine poll conducted by Sanburn reveals that "89% of U.S. adults and 96% of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly 4 in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be 'severe'." (Sanburn 2012). What is the cause of this crisis? The economic aspect is easy to state. Tuition increases and costs have vastly outstripped the rate of inflation since the nineteen-eighties, and a brief period of government intervention in this process -- in which the George H.W. Bush administration essentially recognized that institutions like Harvard and Yale were colluding to fix tuition prices and financial aid levels, and thus engaged in unfair market practices -- expired, thus permitting the process to accelerate, such that a graduating college senior in 2014 can expect to leave higher learning with a large amount of debt.
The level of debt being accrued would not be a problem if the American economy were able to cover for it, but unemployment rates are currently dismal for new college graduates. As a result, we reach a point where the application of free market principles is simply not working properly -- this is a point at which some form of government regulation has to step in. Even a publication like The Economist, whose august pages practically drip the sticky ichor of the free-marketeering Kool-Aid freely imbibed by its editors, is willing to ague that things have gotten out of hand. From this overall right-libertarian perspective, The Economist has noted that the system is not working; in an unsigned editorial of December 2012, the editors noted
… it is easily possible to overspend on one's education: just ask the hundreds of thousands of law graduates who have not found work as lawyers. And this premium is of little comfort to the 9.1% of borrowers who in 2011 had defaulted on their federal student loans within two years of graduating. There are 200 colleges and universities where the three-year default rate is 30% or more. (The Economist, December 2012)
These rates are astonishing when we realize how committed we are to the current extortionate system of student loans. If any other form of borrowing resulted in approximately one in ten borrowers defaulting on their loan obligations within two years of assuming those same obligations, the American government would intervene. The only reason it does not currently intervene is that the public wishes to assume that higher education is a social good -- it is, it still represents a crucial aspect of the "American dream" of social mobility, along with home ownership -- while the government wishes to prop up the free market system of usurious student loans. Because the government is unwilling to make policy changes that reflect the public belief in higher education as a good, and is unwilling to contradict that belief openly, the system has instead drifted into dysfunction.
To look at an example of the opposition faced by proponents of free higher education for all, we may examine the comments made by right-wing opinion journalist Conor Freiersdorf in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Freiersdorf acknowledges that he was a graduate of the University of California system, when he was a California state resident -- so already he was the beneficiary of tremendous subsidy. But when the notion is raised that perhaps college education should be wholly subsidized for all, Freiersdorf finds that this sort of progressive sentiment sticks in his craw:
It would've been scandalous for me to get a four-year education for free in a state with homeless people living on the streets, desperately poor immigrants working 363 days a year as day laborers, crumbling infrastructure, and a very near future with multiple cities literally going bankrupt. Why do some progressives fail to understand that? (Freiersdorf 2013)
Of course this does not really qualify as any sort of argument. Freiersdorf might just as well ask why -- considering all those poor and homeless and all that crumbling infrastructure in California -- American fiscal priorities pay for vast infrastructure improvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will financially benefit no American at all, save the shareholders in Halliburton or Kellogg Brown and Root.
Whereas the entire point of spending on higher education for all Americans is that the financial benefit is immediate and tangible. The current economic climate in America, for better or worse, emphasizes Silicon Valley as the engine of productivity. Whether this is indeed a good long-term economic strategy is immaterial; it is the reality at present, and the simple fact is that it is impossible to work in the tech sector without some level of formal education. Likewise most industries that continue to grow -- such as medical care and nursing -- also require a high level of formal education and training. Removing the financial barriers to higher education would arguably benefit the overall economy. Moreover, the idea of education as a public good in itself and a necessity for America to continue to function as a nation in ways other than economic is one that is not often enough stated. Delbanco put it well in a 2009 article for the New York Review of Books:
But as we consider the future of the nation, which surely depends more than ever on an educated citizenry, it will be of great importance to keep in mind a point too little acted on during the boom years but now undeniable and urgent. John Adams put it succinctly some 225 years ago: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it." (Delbanco 2009).
This is especially pointed when we consider the overall dysfunction of the American political system in 2014. In part, the inability of the voting public to tell sense from nonsense in terms of proposals -- resulting in a high percentage of voters who believed (falsely) that Saddam Hussein had some…