Thursday, January 21, 2016

Free College, Charter Schools, and Irony

Yesterday's New York Times included a Room for Debate argument over free college, plugging into one of the few education related issues that (some) of the Presidential candidates have been (sort of) willing to (kind of) talk about. The debate unleashed a hurricane of irony from the commenters on the "anti" side.

Here's Andrew P. Kelly from the American Enterprise Institute arguing that "The Problem Is That Free College Isn't Free." Kelly argues that free college is a "flawed policy," because rather than being free "it simply shifts costs from students to taxpayers." If "public generosity" doesn't keep pace, then colleges won't be able to keep pace with the level of students, and they'll have to make cuts to meet their budgets.

Second, Kelly argues, " free college plans assume that tuition prices are the main obstacle to student success," and ignores other obstacles to student college success, like students who aren't fully prepared or who lack the personal resources to fully follow through.

Weighing in against free college is also our old buddy Mike Petrilli from the Fordham Institute, arguing that this would be "A Needless Windfall for Affluent Voters and State Institutions."

Nothing in life is truly free — but don’t tell that to dogmatic liberals and their pandering politicians, who would turn the first two years of college into a new universal entitlement.

Petrilli goes on to toss out some more of the standard old data points about college preparedness, including the NAEP claim that only 40% of 12th graders are prepared for college (a bogus piece of data that presumes that NAEP knows what "college-ready" means, even though previous research finds half the students they labeled unready going on to get college degrees). He also helpfully suggests that college not admit students "who are clearly unprepared academically and therefor have virtually no shot at leaving with a real degree or credentials."

On the one hand, this is a logical extension of Petrilli's thesis that some Strivers deserve an education and Those Other Students should be left behind in struggling public schools. Petrilli has long argued that education should be about separating Strivers from Those People, going so far as to defend Eva Moskowitz's push-out policies. So it makes sense that he would  argue that only certain people deserve to be in college. Some day someone needs to explain exactly what society should do with all those undeserving non-strivers. But there's no irony in this part of Petrilli's argument.

On the other hand, the rest of the anti-free-college argument seems vaguely like...hmm.. the argument against charter schools.

The promise of the charter movement has been that we can open free private schools for an added cost of $0.00 over what we're currently spending. The pushback has been that no, charter schools are not free and to exist they must drain resources from other places, including the existing public school system, so that the cost of sending K-12 students to a private school is sloughed off on the taxpayers. (The addition of pricey administrative costs alone guarantees that charters add to the overall cost of K-12 education.)

Kelly's critique-- that free school assumes that getting the students into those schools is all that's needed for success-- exactly mirrors the assertion of charter fans that all we need to do is drop the barriers that keep K-12 students from entering charter schools in order for success to blossom. He says that their are other obstacles to their success that must be addressed before students can succeed; when pro-public school folks say that about charters, they are accused of making excuses and blaming poverty.

Meanwhile, as far as Petrilli's lead goes--

Nothing in life is truly free-- but don't tell that to dogmatic charter fans and their pandering politicians, who would turn twelve years of private school into a new universal entitlement.

There. I fixed that for you.


  1. It really disturbs me that nearly no one discussing various free college plans realizes that various public college systems have been free to students before. California community colleges were free until about 1984. I attended a California CC a few years after 1984 and I only paid $50 per semester in fees. There was no tuition.

    Also, UC Berkeley used to be free, and I believe that city colleges in New York City were also free at some point in the past.

    1. The problem with "free college" is that it ends up being a subsidy from relatively poor households to relatively wealthy ones. It was that way in 1984, and would be if it was started again.

      Charging based on household income is much more equitable.

    2. But that same argument applies to K-12 public education. So, do you hold that K-12 public education should not be free to wealthier households? Probably not.

      Equity in taxes and government services is obviously very complicated. Some inequity in one area can be offset in another. The real questions is whether free college, at the community college level at least, can be part of a more equitable society. The answer to that question, especially given the historical record on free college in America (not to mention other countries), seems to be a "yes".

    3. Eric,

      It does not apply to K-12 because students are required to attend K-12 while post secondary education is optional and students from wealthier households are more likely to choose post secondary education. The result is that the median household wealth of a college or university student is higher than the median household wealth of a student in K-12. The median household wealth of a student in K-12 is much closer (probably nearly identical with) the median household wealth of people who pay taxes.

      Even more equitable than "free" college would be a progressive system where students from wealthier households pay more.

    4. Eric,

      Here is some specific data about household wealth of students at a top state university. It is from an op ed piece in The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at The University of Michigan.

      " For the class of 2013 (the most recent class for which data is published), 84.4 percent of students reported parental income above $50,000 a year. More students reported an annual family income of over $250,000 (16.9 percent) than below $50,000 (15.6 percent). Keep in mind that according to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than half of all Michigan residents make less than $50,000 each year."

      The op ed writer did make one mistake, median household income in Michigan was less than $50,000, not median individual income.

      You can find the median household income by state for 2010 here:

      You can find the original op ed here:

  2. I think that this blog post is really interesting! I have to say, I do see similarities between the free-college movement and charter schools. I think that it is really hard to make it so that college is completely free, in some way or another, people will have to pay for it. Speaking on the charter school system, I feel that if we continue to pour money into these schools as well as private schools we are only harming public schools even more. It becomes a cycle of lowering public schools and taking away their funding, when in reality we should be pouring the same money into improving the public school system.

  3. I also wish in this debate that everyone would stop saying things like "someone will have to pay for free college so it isn't really free." That is a cheap debating trick. When people say "free college" all they mean is that students will not be charged tuition. In other words, taxpayers will subsidize all the educational costs. But this already happens in the K-12 public systems. Those systems are free to the students/families who use them, although obviously taxpayers pay for the system.

    To act as if those proposing free public colleges actually believe that the taxpayers won't be the ones paying is both insulting and disingenuous. I wish people would stop using such a cheap rhetorical trick

  4. Actually, with Bernie's plan, college would be paid for by a tax on certain types of frequent trading transactions, which would just affect people like hedge fund managers, and would make the financial system more stable to boot.

  5. Rebecca,

    You should remember that teacher's retirement funds are invested in the financial markets and hedge funds. Lowering the returns to investing will effect teachers as well as hedge fund managers. Here is a link to everything the Ohio teacher retirement fund owned as of the last filing:

  6. STRS's investments are extremely diversified and managed very responsibly by STRS, not hedge fund managers, and they don't do frequent trades. What hurt them was the Great Recession caused by the unscrupulous risky players.