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I Work In Higher Ed. This Is Why Free College Is A Terrible Idea

By Ellie Holt··  11 min read
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I Work In Higher Ed. This Is Why Free College Is A Terrible Idea

As someone who works in higher education, I often have a front-row seat to the inner workings and the many ways our political establishment promulgates myths about higher education. Many of these myths sound good, but upon closer scrutiny, they’re rife with problematic falsehoods and damaging narratives.

Let's dive in and debunk five myths about the higher education industrial complex. 

1. College Should Be Free

For those familiar with progressive politicians such as AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, the idea of free college is a mainstay in their political platform. The idea sounds great and seeks to assuage the burden of those who can’t afford college. A more educated public? What could be wrong with that? But let's start with what should be obvious. It's not free. 

Even if it’s free to you, someone else picks up the cost, and that cost is usually passed along to you later.

As the great economist Milton Friedman said, "There is no such thing a free lunch," meaning nothing in life is free. Even if it’s free to you, someone else picks up the cost, and that cost is usually passed along to you in some way, shape, or form later down the road (*cough* taxes, inflation, and increased cost of living). There never seems to be a lack of problems that the Left can’t just solve by simply making the rich pay for it, which is essentially a tiny bandaid on a burst pipe. It's an unsustainable solution that doesn't address the real issues. If we look a little deeper into the narrative of free college we will see that the argument is predicated on two other lies that must first be dismantled before we can have a productive conversation about "free" college. 

2. College Is a Golden Ticket to Success

We can only believe that college ought to be free for everyone if we first believe that everyone should go to college. There exists this pervasive idea in America that a college education is a golden ticket to success and equity. If everyone goes to college then racism and disparities and poverty will be solved. But the truth is that college isn't the right choice for everyone.

The idea that everyone should go to college is rooted in classist ideas and insists that those who don't go to college are inferior to those who do, or that a formal education is the only education worthy of note. Besides, not everyone wants to go to college and that's just fine. College isn't for everyone. There are tons of great, lucrative professions that don't require a college degree. College isn't a prerequisite to wealth, success, happiness, stability, or intelligence. If the goal is to push as many students through the university system as possible, then we end up with a lot of students who don't want to be there, poorer learning outcomes for everyone, and a whole lot of degree inflation. 

College isn't a prerequisite to wealth, success, happiness, stability or intelligence.

Not to mention that in many ways the "college experience," which is touted as so formative, is much more of a drunken bacchanal in a frat basement than a beacon of free inquiry and intellectualism. Personally, as a taxpayer, I don't find it particularly alluring that I should have to pay for some 18 year old to experiment with sex and drugs and Marxism. Besides, with more and more colleges putting a bigger emphasis on radical ideology and teaching students what to think rather than how to think, the idea that college provides an unparalleled learning opportunity is highly debatable. But that's exactly why many politicians want more students to go to college, so they can mold them into lifelong voters who mirror their priorities. 

In essence, college isn't a golden ticket, and it certainly doesn't guarantee success. It's wrong to push everyone to go to college when it may not be the right choice for them. 

3. There’s Nothing That Can Be Done To Make College More Affordable, So It Should Just Be Free

The second myth embedded in the "free college" narrative is that college is too expensive so it should just be free. Funny how no one who claims to want more students to go to college pushes to find out what exactly has made college increasingly unaffordable, and instead insists on it just becoming a state entitlement.

Colleges and universities receive state funding based on full-time enrollment (FTE) numbers, meaning there’s an incentive to retain as many students as possible to achieve funding. But instead of making tuition more competitive by lowering costs to students (i.e cutting institutional budgets and programs that don't result in higher enrollment), colleges push for free college to retain more students. This puts the burden on taxpayers to cough up more money, rather than on the institutions themselves to lower costs and make college more affordable. 

The truth of the matter is that college is unreasonably expensive, but it doesn't require more government intervention to make it more affordable. In fact, like most things, less government intervention would make it more affordable and therefore more accessible to more students. 

One example of this is that in order to be deemed an "accredited" college or university, a.k.a. an institution where your degree is actually worth something, the college must go through an accreditation process by an external panel. Unfortunately, much of the accreditation process has nothing to do with examining teaching models and student success, but rather has a lot more to do with diversity initiatives, equity programs, and how many non-bias trainings faculty and staff attend per year. 

Sports programs and fancy new buildings keep tuition high while doing nothing to improve learning outcomes.

Thus, colleges are forced to maintain progressive initiatives and shell out big money on diversity programs that could instead be channeled into making tuition more affordable. Why does a college need five million dollars worth of diversity officers on the payroll when that money could be directed towards making tuition more affordable and therefore making college more accessible to the same low-income communities it attempts to seek out via diversity officers? The result is that the requirements of being an accredited institution needlessly inflate tuition costs and create more and more barriers to higher ed that are then passed off to the students and the taxpayers.

Likewise, things like enormous sports programs and fancy new buildings keep tuition high while doing nothing to improve learning outcomes for students. This is not to say that schools shouldn't have sports, or ignore the way sports brings in money for other activities, but if we’re serious about making college more affordable, then it's important to examine ways that colleges can cut costs for students. Many of the fancy perks of higher education get passed on in the form of tuition hikes while not actually improving educational outcomes. Likewise, higher education is always protected by a government safety net in which higher ed is never responsible for its own mismanagement of funds or overspending because there’s always government aid to come to rescue the institution. 

Essentially, if we’re serious about making college more accessible then we need to get serious about making higher ed accountable to its students, not monopolized entitlement programs run by bureaucratic elites. 

4. College Debt Should Be Cancelled 

The idea of canceling student debt has been floating around recently, made popular first during the Democratic primaries and most recently when Biden promised a cancellation of debt in his first 100 days in office. Social justice warriors rejoice at this promise, gleeful that crippling debt would be expunged from the innocent college students who had been preyed upon by evil loan sharks. The canceling of debt would be a triumph against classism. 

The only problem with this is that in reality, it’s not the working poor, the underprivileged, or the oppressed who benefit most from this — it’s the highly educated elite, people who attended college. Most debt is accumulated in grad school, meaning that canceling student debt would pay off the debt of the most elite, most highly educated members of society, those like doctors and lawyers who would most easily be able to pay off their own debt in good time. Most talk of college debt forgiveness is but fanciful rhetoric that is both misleading and dishonest. Canceling student debt completely ignores those who chose not to go to college because they didn't want to take out loans they couldn't pay, or because they didn’t have the money for college.

Most student debt is accumulated in grad school, so canceling it would pay off the debt of the most elite.

Of course, no one's debt just goes away, rather the taxpayer is now encumbered with debt they didn’t agree to, to pay for something they didn’t agree to. Likewise, the extent that anyone benefits from such a policy is in fact minimal. As economist Dr. Thomas Sowell notes, the average amount of college debt is about $32,000, roughly the average cost of a mid-range car. Are we to believe that this level of debt is so crippling, so unjust, that we ought to cancel all car payments as well? The point is that canceling debt is presented to us under the guise of social justice and a socialist-style transfer of wealth, when in fact it really just reinforces class divides and mostly benefits the elite. 

5. Standardized Testing and Merit-Based Entrance to Colleges Are Racist 

In the age of Critical Race Theory, it has become very en vogue to denounce meritocracy. The implied premise is that it’s simply too much to ask that minority students perform well on standardized tests such as the SAT or receive good grades; rather, systems of meritocracy should be done away with because of Jim Crow. 

Conversely, the other side of that premise is that those who do well in meritocratic systems aren't really deserving of their academic success, or that it’s unearned in some way and we must dismantle the system to make it fairer. There’s no evidence that tests like the SAT measure privilege and are systemically designed so that white students do better. There’s no evidence that lowering standards will improve educational results; rather it will simply cover up educational disparities and do nothing to improve results. 

Let's just call it as it this. This is racist. For those in black and Hispanic communities, this nonsense is plagued with the soft bigotry of low expectations, and for those in high-performing communities such as Asians and Jews, there’s a racist assumption that they’re undeserving of their success. Is that really a message we want to run with? Is that really the route to healing and anti-racism? 

There’s no evidence that the SAT measures privilege or is systemically designed so white students do better.

As Ibram X. Kendi makes clear, the only antidote to past discrimination is present and future discrimination. Essentially Dr. Kendi advocates for a self-perpetuating cycle of racism and discrimination that promotes more inequality and more resentment to atone for past sins. The logical conclusion of this thinking has been playing out for decades in the case of affirmative action in which students of color are granted admission to institutions they might not be able to get into if it weren't for the color of their skin, while Asian students are admitted at a lesser degree. Let's again call this what it is — racism. Racism, in which a student's race is being used to dictate the educational opportunities available to them. As a result many students of color are mismatched with universities, and they end up dropping and failing out at higher rates than if they attended an institution better suited to them. Is this the result activists want? Fewer successful black college students? Meanwhile, Asian students are being punished for their success. 

If we’re serious about expanding educational opportunities, elite institutions should be looking to do away with legacy systems and volunteer work requirements that are available to the elite and are easier to game for those with more money than a standardized test. 

Closing Thoughts

While I’m a proponent of education and increased educational opportunities for all, I’m afraid that policies regarding education have become overtly political and polarizing in which we favor tribalistic political notions over sensible policy prescriptions. This is most damaging to students. If we want a more educated public the best place to start is with improving K-12 and expanding successful charter schools so that students are better prepared to enter college, not merely just getting pushed through a system for the sake of that institution's state funding allotment. Likewise, merely adding more years of taxpayer-funded education does nothing if the educational system itself is not improving and providing higher quality education. We know that throwing money at schools doesn't improve educational outcomes. This is beating a dead horse, and it's time to wake up. 

Moreover, if we’re serious about increasing access to education, then we need to be looking to decrease the cost of tuition, not pushing the burden to taxpayers and expecting someone else to pick up the tab. In many ways, we’re having totally unserious conversations about education and expecting results to materialize when we can’t even be honest about the real issues at hand. Future generations deserve better. 

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