Free college for all will be a disaster

Democratic presidential hopefuls have made free college for all an issue that can no longer be ignored (“Free college for All Is an Experiment That Has Already Failed,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 7).  With student debt topping $1.6 trillion, its appeal is understandable. But if the proposal ever becomes a reality, it will be a fiasco.  The most ambitious effort ever made to promote equality of opportunity in higher education in this country that began at City University of New York in 1970 still stands as the best evidence.

Under an open admissions policy, all students who graduated in the top half of their high school class or who had a grade point average of 80 were entitled to enroll at CUNY.  From the start, the faculty had to engage in remedial instruction beyond anything they had done in the past.  In 1999, as the system continued to decay, a task force appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for a major overhaul.  It brought in Mathew Goldstein, who was then the president of Adelphia University, to lead the effort.  By imposing demanding admissions requirements and establishing clear performance metrics, CUNY once again regained its reputation.

In “City On A Hill,” James Traub describes what actually took place at CUNY from 1970 to 1998 when open admissions prevailed.  What he writes serves as a cautionary tale for those who want free college for all. The fact is that not everyone is college material. It takes a certain IQ to handle college-level material.  Our competitors abroad have long accepted this truth.  That’s why they give vocational education the respect it deserves. Germany, for example, uses scores on its Abitur to determine who receives a vocational or academic education.  Its two-tier system has helped keep youth unemployment remarkably low.

Yet we persist in the fiction that vocational education – now branded as career and technical education – is inferior.  We pay a stiff price for our attitude.  The vast majority of four-year colleges and universities are non-selective in their admissions.  They churn out thousands of graduates with degrees in useless fields. In the average bachelor’s degree program, students leave school with a debt burden equal to about 80 percent of their salary in the first year after graduation.


In contrast, community colleges offer inexpensive two-year associate degrees and one-year certificates in a wide range of desperately needed specializations.  Graduates are quickly employed without the debt their peers shoulder. Nevertheless, high school counselors continue to advise seniors to apply to four-year institutions, in the fiction that without a bachelor’s degree they face a bleak future. The mismatch explains why 40 percent of those who go to college don’t earn a degree. The blow to their self-esteem, coupled with the debt they incurred, should be enough to call into question free college for all.

But what about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree?  Although those who have the degree earn on average a million dollars more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma, it does not follow that all will do so.  The payoff for the coveted degree varies dramatically by field of study.  Gender studies majors, say, don’t earn nearly as much as, say, welders.

Moreover, there’s little connection between an institution’s brand name and the earning power of its graduates.  That’s a lesson parents caught up in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal never learned.  They falsely assumed that a degree from a marquee-name school warranted the expenditure of thousands of dollars.

The truth is that we have been wildly oversold on the value of a bachelor’s degree.  College is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.













2 Replies to “Free college for all will be a disaster”

  1. I think that what the Dem candidates are proposing is free tuition at state colleges, not free tuition at all colleges or free full ride at state colleges or all colleges. Students taking advantage of the free tuition at state colleges would still have some “skin in the game” as they pay for room/board + forego earnings they would have had if they had gotten jobs instead of attending college.

    Not sure how relevant the CCNY open-admissions disaster is to the free-tuition issue. CCNY did great for decades before open-admission when it offered free tuition but had competitive rather than open admissions. The problem was not the free tuition but rather the impact on instruction generally (and on the perceived worth of a degree) of admitting students who were not college material. Don’t think that any of the Dem proposals include open-admissions. Seems likely that the impact of free tuition at existing state universities will be to increase the caliber of the students and hence the perceived worth of a degree — that is, there will be the same number of seats available at the state universities, but now there will be more students applying (applicants who, absent the free tuition, might have applied instead to private colleges + low-income applicants who would not have applied at all to any college). Unless the state universities significantly increase the number of seats available, free tuition will help, not harm, the universities’ reputation.

    Agree that US post-high-school education policies should be revised to place much greater emphasis on job-training and less on liberal-arts college degrees. But, I would nevertheless argue that the US should increase federal support for students attending state universities. This should not be an either/or question.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I don’t make a distinction between private and state universities because both are supposed to enroll students who can handle college-level work. Free tuition will only encourage students who are not prepared to apply for admission. That sets them up for failure or results in dumbing down instruction.


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