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Free education for all would widen the gap between rich and poor

Several of the Democratic candidates, jockeying for position to become the nominee who will run against President Trump in 2020, are calling for universal, free college education for every American. On the face of it, it seems to be a laudable goal: Who in their right mind would oppose leveling the playing field for students, giving everybody a chance to succeed on their merits, while reducing the debt burden that looms over an entire generation?

Yet in real terms, such a proposal would have exactly the opposite effect. It would further exacerbate the difference between rich and poor in America. 

Here is why: Presumably, this would require the creation of many new faculty positions at state institutions, since they are the only ones in a position to provide a “free” (i.e., taxpayer-supported) education. In addition, most state governments have, over time, eroded their financial commitments to institutions of higher education in their states. Alaska, currently on a path to eliminate its state education system, is only the most recent and most egregious example. 

Since federal legislation, were it to pass, almost certainly would come to the states, in part or perhaps even entirely, as an “unfunded mandate” (i.e., without federal dollars to support such legislation), even state governments that might look kindly at such a proposal would be hard-pressed to find sufficient funds in their budget to support it. Here in New York State, where a relatively modest version of “free education” was introduced a little more than a year ago, there was not nearly enough support for the state universities charged with absorbing the additional students. They were expected to squeeze the students into larger classes with less support by faculty.

This approach has played out in Europe, whose universities once were among the top in the world, but where a continuous erosion of public funding for a tax-supported, free college  education system has reduced most European universities (except in the United Kingdom, where you must pay tuition) to a status of permanent mediocrity.

Such a proposal would eliminate an entire industry nationwide, all those second- and third-tier nonprofit colleges and universities that provide excellent upward mobility to millions of Americans each year, at a sticker price that is, on average, $10,000 to $20,000 less than the so-called elite institutions. They provide significant financial support to their students out of their modest endowments (typically between $20 million and $120 million), further reducing the actual price a typical family pays, yet they need tuition dollars to continue doing so.

Take away these couple of thousand institutions with their millions of students — which would be the inevitable result of a nationwide, universal free college policy — and you are left with a two-tiered system that would permanently cement into place the current division between the 5 percent who have enough money to send their sons and daughters to Ivy League institutions, or one of the top 40 or 50 private colleges and universities, and the remaining 95 percent of the population. 

So, 95 percent of the next student generation would languish in overcrowded classes — think 60 to 100 students per class, with graduate student teaching assistants, underpaid professors and under-resourced labs — as is currently the case in Europe and many existing state institutions in the United States. The lucky 5 percent would have paid for excellent faculty who are attentive to their intellectual needs, provide proper advising and help them get jobs through their network. 

Now that would really level the playing field, wouldn’t it?

There is no question that we must address the $1.5 trillion college debt structure; that for-profit institutions are siphoning off federal Pell Grant dollars without providing a real educational product to their students, a practice that has been explicitly promoted by the current secretary of Education. But even at responsible nonprofit institutions, comprehensive fees (tuition, room and board) are continuing to spiral upward and out of reach of lower-income and middle-class Americans.

A responsible approach to solving this very real and urgent problem would be to work with private nonprofits to come up with a plan that might, for example, trade a small percentage of the money some of the Democratic candidates wish to spend on “free education for all” for a commitment by existing responsible private nonprofit institutions not to raise tuition above the rate of inflation, or not to raise tuition at all for a certain number of years.

However, simply wiping out an entire industry as some of the Democrats propose — an industry that is still one of the few in which America is a world leader — is not the answer. That would throw out the baby with the bath water.

Michael Geisler is president of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. He previously served as vice president for risk and compliance, professor of German, and vice president for the Language Schools and Schools Abroad at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt.

Tags 2020 campaign Donald Trump Education economics free college tuition Higher education

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