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If free college required a dramatically higher adjunct percentage, should we do it?

Yes, that’s a loaded question. It assumes that the meanings of both “free” and “dramatically higher” are transparent. For the sake of argument, let’s say that “free” means “no tuition or fees,” and “dramatically higher” means half again as high as now. (So a college with 50% of its sections taught by adjuncts would move to 75%.) Assume general cuts to administration, just so we don’t get lost in pretending that it would be enough to solve the problem in itself.  

Still, the core of the question strikes me as valid. Service sector costs go up more quickly than costs in the economy as a whole. That means that over time, if we eliminate tuition as a revenue stream, the appropriations we’d need would increase more quickly than tax revenues. Given the political history of the last forty years, that strikes me as unlikely to be sustained, especially when the next recession hits. Some significant part of the revenue lost would probably have to come from spending cuts.

Over the last decade or so, public colleges have made up for public disinvestment by splitting the difference between tuition increases and service cuts. Take tuition increases off the table, and accelerated service cuts strike me as predictable, at least in the long run.

I’d certainly welcome a long-term visit from the money fairy that would allow us to have both, but hope is not a plan.  

So, the question stands. If making college free required significant cuts in service, including a dramatic acceleration in the trend towards adjunct faculty, should we do it?  Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

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