Universal Free College Would Be a Regressive Scandal

College graduates benefit from their educations for decades. They should bear part of the cost.

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John Morgan/Flickr

In Salon, Mario Goetz harkens back to what he regards as the good old days of higher education in post-World War II California, when the University of California System wasn't just rapidly expanding but also free:

In their Fall 2012 article in Dissent, Aaron Bady and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal reveal what higher education used to mean and how it was systematically destroyed. Bady and Konczal transport us to 1950s-'60s California, where bipartisan support for a University of California system built the state into a land of prosperity and innovation, a burgeoning middle class sent its children to college for free, and progressive Republicans happily funded education to support inclusion and social mobility for California's next generation. In 1960, the Donahoe Act, or the Master Plan for Higher Education, represented California's commitment to educate anyone who wanted to be educated. Despite the concurrent trends of racism, sexism, and American imperialism that pervaded that era, California's higher education system was a golden example of what America could achieve.

So what happened? Where did it go? In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California and began dismantling the promising work of the past 20 years. Previously, admission had been free, except for a few relatively small fees, but the Reagan government lifted regulations on how much schools could charge in fees, allowing costs to skyrocket. Also, incentives were created for colleges to accept out-of-state students, who would pay higher fees. Both of these strategies shifted the financial responsibility for higher education onto students rather than the state. The process of culturally redefining higher education as not a right, or a public good, but an investment, subject to the whims of the marketplace and corporate capitalism, had begun.

Let me see if I understand this correctly. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, less than one-fifth of American adults earned a bachelor's degree, and just 36 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "a college education is very important." In that era even more than now, the majority of collegians came from relative privilege. And most college grads did very well for themselves -- ensuing decades confirm they are much more privileged than their no-degree counterparts.

Yet Goetz would have us believe that the most privileged young people of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ones who were in college instead of working in a factory or dying in Vietnam, ought to have gone to school for free, bearing all of the benefits and none of the costs of their educations, and participating in a system wherein they were subsidized by folks including the less privileged.

I must disagree.

Private enterprise couldn't have created the UC System, and I'm exceedingly glad the state of California had the foresight to do so. It is silly to give UC all the credit for having "built the state into a land of prosperity and innovation," given the Defense Department dollars that poured into California from Pearl Harbor on, among other things, but it has certainly been a huge boon. May it remain so.

Tuition and fees at UC Berkeley this year are $12,864. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo undergrads pay $8,507. Transfer to either one of those state institutions after two years at a community college and you earn a four-year degree at a cost that is higher than it might be in a world without tuition inflation, but still quite reasonable compared to the competition, and ultimately bearable for most grads, who still remain vastly better off that the Californians who never attend college.

(And these aren't just any colleges -- multiple UC campuses are excellent institutions, as are the best Cal State schools.)

Had I been able to attend UC Berkeley free in 1998, when I started college, I certainly would have, and I wouldn't be looking forward, at 33, to finally paying off my student loans soon, hopefully. I am fully in favor of helping students from poor families afford college without borrowing away their futures, especially as long as we've got this contrived ruling-class credential system, in which too many of us pretend it is legitimate to have an economy where only folks who satisfy four years of academic requirements in a classroom setting can prosper.

There are all sorts of increases in education spending I'd support for the sake of equality of opportunity. But the notion that all students should pay nothing for college is preposterous. 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?

I share the goal of helping people to be educated for less than the going rate at many colleges today. But universal free college is a regressive subsidy advocated for by well-intentioned people who don't seem to understand that someone ultimately has to pay for university instruction.


At least portion of that cost should be borne by the person who benefits from the education for decades.