Should higher education be free? Some of the candidates think so, others don’t, but you need to read the fine print to evaluate their proposals seriously. You can get a start on that at: https://www.nasfaa.org/2020.
The positions staked out so far cover a wide range, from drastic cuts to student aid (Trump) to free four-year college for all (Sanders). Various student loan forgiveness programs have also been proposed.
We think this is an important and complicated issue – worthy of discussion by educators of all types and stripes. So this latest Torrey Helm Forum invites comments and discussions by any and all of our readers and followers.
To kick-off the conversation, we have invited two distinguished thinkers from very different backgrounds to join Randy Helm in an on-line forum, moderated by Bill Torrey. The first of these is Christopher Hooker-Haring of Pennsylvania, an admissions and financial aid veteran (Lafayette, Muhlenberg. Wheaton) with a deep knowledge of the market and the finances of higher education enrollment. The second is Doug Connor, a former archaeologist and retired Fortune 500 business executive, with degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford. Doug is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K. (where he now lives). Randy, of course, has been a senior administrator at four institutions over the past four decades: Penn, Colby, Muhlenberg, and UMass Dartmouth, has served on the boards of NAICU and CASE, and is a community college trustee.
Bill Torrey: Thanks for joining the conversation. Let’s jump right to the big question: should higher education be an entitlement?
Doug Connor: In a word, Yes. But the Devil is in his usual place. At Oxford, in the early 70s, I paid foreign student tuition fees. My British fellow students paid none.The encumbrance of tuition fees was not laid on students. It was borne by the government. Wherever British students came from and whatever university accepted them, they were chosen on the basis of intellectual and academic promise and they got their places for that reason. Under this regimen, Oxford produced, I would submit, scholars, academics and intellectuals of the first order, and as good as one could find anywhere in the world of scholarly achievement.
Chris Hooker-Haring: For me, the issue of higher education as an entitlement rests on the question of how far we as a society consider higher education as a public good vs. an individual benefit. If we see it as a critical public good, then perhaps that leads us in the direction of prioritizing it as an entitlement (which we are willing to prioritize over other possible priorities for public dollar support). While I have always viewed education as a public good, I can’t entirely separate out the individual benefit aspect.
Randy Helm: Unfortunately, we live in a time and society where consensus has failed about almost any kind of “public good.” It is true that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes. Presumably they also pay more taxes. They fill jobs that drive the economy and that non-college grads can’t do. They make scientific and technical discoveries that benefit society in ways great and small. Various studies demonstrate that they are also more likely to be homeowners, to volunteer for non-profit organizations, and to vote in elections. I regard all these as evidence that higher education is a “public good.” But there are many who would disagree – or simply not care because they subscribe to a more “rugged individualist” approach to life.
BT: If we go down the entitlement road, should it include all types of education, or just career-related programs? What about the humanities? Theological training? Apprenticeship programs? Skill training?
CHH:If we moved in the “free college” direction, my hope would be that there would be room for multiple kinds of higher education, including skills training that is more career-centered. If we are all-in on this concept, we should provide for four years higher education—the standard undergraduate program and time frame. If students choose to go for some shorter-term career education, we should tweak the system to accommodate that.
DC:I am a great fan of the traditional disciplines. (I acknowledge a partisan view on this, mine being Classics, Archaeology, Ancient History and Theology – and the languages that go with them. I say this because there is a core of history in the Western World that is cultural intincture for every one of us. If we want to remember, as a society, not just “who we are right now” but how we came to this time, only the classical disciplines will enable this). In England, over the past decade, there has been a real push to recreate robust apprenticeship programmes – learn to be a Sparks, a Chippy or a Bricky – and there are lots of other choices as well. I have young friends who have enrolled in these programmes. (Not everyone aspires to be a papyrologist or particle physicist.) The government mandates a very basic wage (£3.90/hour) during the apprenticeship because this is the equivalent of “college” for these young people and they are being taught what they will need to know as productive adults.
RH: For the most part I agree with Chris and Doug, but not without some reservations. First, it is virtually impossible to tailor an undergraduate education to the careers that will need trained professionals ten or twenty years down the road. The pace of change is too fast. We need intellectually agile citizens who have a versatile toolkit of problem-solving skills. And I think Doug is right that, as a society, we need to understand the roots of our culture and history (but of course we are both historians at heart). Finally, I am deeply convinced that education should enrich one’s life and spirit, not just one’s bank account. That said, however, public support for education should yield public dividends. I’m confident it would, but as a society we’d have to agree on some metrics! I also agree that any program of public support for post high school education would need to be extremely flexible because society’s talent pool and society’s needs are so varied. We will need plumbers and pediatricians, electricians and neuroscientists, elementary school teachers and nurses, journalists, construction workers, software designers, aerospace engineers, geologists, home health care workers, carpenters, oncologists, and roofers – you get the idea. Some of these skills require many years of education, others less than the typical four years of college. Any successful system would require variety, flexibility, and equity.
BT: What about means testing?
RH: the candidates are all over the map on that one, but I’m just conservative enough to believe that parents have some responsibility for their children’s education. Obviously some families can afford to send all their kids to elite schools at full price; most can’t, and many can’t contribute much at all to their children’s education. So I think means testing is definitely the way to go.
CHH:If we were to move entirely in the “entitlement” direction, I would still want some sort of means testing. This would no doubt make it harder to get this passed politically, but the idea of “free-for-the-children-of-billionaires” just seems wrong on the face of it.
DC: In the UK, every retirement-age household receives a “Winter Fuel Allowance” payment of £200 regardless of income. Some people return it to the government because they don’t need it. But it is clear and it is fair. So give free tuition to the Billionaire’s kids too. ….because, after all, the “trickle down” effect will provide more for the country than the cost of any means testing, right? (I am being ironic – but how many kids can each billionaire have?....and what impact will that have in the grand scheme of providing universal university education?).
BT: If we go down the entitlement path, should public support for “free college” be restricted to public institutions, including community colleges? What impact would this have on our country’s private colleges and universities, many of which are already struggling to meet enrollment targets?
DC: If you are going to make college free, then don’t mince words or get too precious about this. Higher education is higher education. (Interested? Got a High School diploma? Go ahead then!)
CHH: My preference would be for a voucher system that allows students to choose the type of institution they wish to attend. This would not create “winners” and “losers” as a public-only system might. The state of Pennsylvania provides a model for this with its PHEAA grant program that allows students to take their educational grant to any in-state institution, public or private. If the vouchers are pegged to an average public institution tuition, for example, then the choice to attend a private college would mean it is “less free” than a public institution, but there would still be some balance there.
RH: It’s shocking to me that so few candidates realize that restricting public support to public institutions would devastate the already precarious state of the private higher education sector and this, in turn, would be a catastrophe for an American higher education system that, despite its flaws and challenges, is still the envy of the world. So, yes, vouchers would be essential. In fact, as some candidates have proposed, substantially increasing Pell Grants and adjusting eligibility requirements might be a (comparatively) easy way to accomplish this. And if, as I have recommended in my blog, even public institution tuitions should be means-tested, the overall cost of this “entitlement” would be reduced.
BT: What about quality standards? Wouldn’t an entitlement of this scale invite fraud on a massive scale? I’m thinking of institutions that take Federal dollars and don’t provide a high quality educational experience, or individuals who take the entitlement voucher and then goof off for four years?
CHH: Yes on institutional standards - and this could very easily become a prickly political football. Is accreditation sufficient? By whom? What about for-profit institutions? This is a thicket that could be among the thorniest to sort out. And, yes, I believe that students who are receiving a public investment in their educational experience should be expected to meet some basic standard of performance in order to keep the grant/voucher/scholarship.
DC:Assuming we were in a world where there was no longer any need for money (cf: the science fiction of Iain M Banks) then, of course, we should enable the enrolment of any student in any institution/organisation/corporation which says it is providing “College Education,” right? No. There have to be boundary conditions to protect the intellectual integrity of the institutions (say nothing of the interests of the student themselves). We have seen this run amuck. Institutions claiming to provide….”(some grand result - make it up)”…and claiming government grants and student support. (Think: Trump University. No accreditation. No degrees offered. Bilked students for thousands. Two class action lawsuits. Paid $25M in settlement costs.) There have to be standards for accreditation and integrity.
RH:The Obama administration, for all its mistakes in higher education policy, at least addressed the issue of for-profit institutions that were ripping off students. Now the Trump administration is doing its best to reverse those reforms. It doesn’t help that the current president once profited from a fraudulent “university.” I think accreditation systems, while imperfect, are already pretty robust. It is important to keep accreditation out of the hands of politicians if we are to preserve independence of thought and research. As for student performance? It has long amazed me how some students goof off despite the incredible sacrifices their families make to pay their tuition, so absolutely yes – there must be performance standards if students are to retain public support for their education. I’m not sure that these standards should be left up to the individual institutions, however. Mightn’t that represent a conflict of interest? Is entrusting this task to the Federal government too big a risk?
BT: Let’s end with the one-and-a-half trillion dollar question: Should student loan debt be forgiven?
DC:So let’s just think. If you forgave all that debt, where would all the money from the currently crushing monthly repayments go? Well, some graduates would go out and buy golf clubs and cars – so the money would go back into the GDP and the success of businesses. Others would start socking it all away for a down payment on a house – so the money would go back to the banks to be loaned to others.
I can’t see a downside to forgiveness of student loans – except, of course, short term, to the banks themselves. And given what they did to us in 2008, I think forgiving student indebtedness would be the very least they could do.
CHH:This is also a political hot potato. If students are getting some sort of substantial subsidy to attend college, then perhaps any additional loans they take out should be their responsibility. Students who have current loan debt incurred that under a different system? Should the taxpayers step in and absolve students of that debt? This, it seems to me, is a backward looking issue that should be separated from the forward-looking issue of “free college” moving forward. It carries its own set of political and moral questions, and probably needs its own debate separate from the debate about what we do moving forward.
RH: I agree with both Doug and Chris on this. It’s definitely a political hot potato (or maybe a hand grenade) in the current “what’s in it for me?” mood of the electorate. I don’t have the answer, but would observe that it’s a huge problem – not just for the student debtors, but also for the nation and our economy. Meanwhile, we seem to be okay with massive corporate welfare – perhaps because it’s already embedded in the economy and most citizens don’t really understand how it works. My guess is, that if we swapped out student loan forgiveness with corporate welfare on a dollar-to-dollar basis, the economy would be stronger - even in the short term.
BT: Any final thoughts – or questions for colleagues who would like to join the conversation?
CHH:Having watched what happens with our current system of free public education from K-12, I’m not so sure that “free college” would end up being a great thing. Local school budgets too often become contentious political footballs. Many communities have trouble getting education budgets passed at all. Imagine trying to impose that on a national scale. The potential for trouble, including education being taken out of the hands of the educators and put into the hands of the politicians who hold the purse strings, seems enormous.
RH: Agreed, politicization of higher education is a real danger. Some would say that it is already politicized, but it could get so much worse. Detaching public support from public control is a tricky business – maybe impossible – but the Federal government does not have a great track record in understanding and supporting higher education, and the cynicism and hypocrisy of political candidates when speaking about higher education is already pretty discouraging. Keeping academic freedom intact is the most important priority.