'Free College' Could Make America College-Free

The issue is becoming a partisan one, which could further undermine Republican support for higher education. Those concerned about college affordability and employability might be wise to look for more moderate solutions, Ryan Craig argues.

August 10, 2018
Senator Bernie Sanders and New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Last month New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, became the latest Democrat to announce a plan for free college. By my count, Murphy is the fifth Democratic governor to do so, following those in Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Numerous Democrats running for governorships have done the same. But free college wasn’t born in a blue state. Republican governor Bill Haslam established the Tennessee Promise back in 2014, covering tuition and fees at state community colleges and technical schools. Since then, Republican governors in Arkansas, Kentucky and Nevada have adopted similar plans for free community college.

But facing what it perceives to be a college affordability emergency (but which is actually a combination of a crisis of affordability plus employability -- specifically, graduate underemployment, meaning inability to pay down the mountain of student loan debt), the Democratic Party has co-opted the concept. In 2016, Hillary Clinton attempted to cover her left flank by co-opting free college and offering a more realistic version of Bernie Sanders’s plan. Now, the party’s future leaders are engaged in a free-college arms race.

Despite strong objections from New York’s private colleges and universities, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state was the first to extend beyond free community college, to tuition-free public four-year institutions. Subsequently, expansive free college was proposed on the federal level in a bill introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand -- all but a handful of the party’s 2020 presidential contenders.

In March, Democratic senator Brian Schatz introduced the Debt-Free College Act of 2018, which would match state higher education funding dollar for dollar for states that commit to free college at public four-year (and two-year) schools. The program is estimated to cost $80 billion in its first year. And despite being rebuffed by the Legislature on her first attempt, Governor Gina Raimondo insists she will make Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island free if she’s re-elected.

As Democrats work themselves into a free-college feeding frenzy, I’m not seeing any new red states or Republican governors following Tennessee’s lead. Free community college began as a bipartisan idea, but Democratic adoption, absorption and extension has made it entirely partisan. In this, free college is following the well-trod path of both global warming and school choice.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, global warming was not a partisan issue. In the 1988 election, George H. W. Bush called for action to combat climate change. “These issues know no ideology, no political boundaries,” he said. “It’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about.” At the time, conservatives were active participants in various forums, hearings and books on global warming.

Then along came Al. Once Vice President Al Gore revealed that his passion was to stop global warming, everything changed. Between 1997 -- the time of the Clinton administration’s endorsement of the Kyoto Accord -- and 2006 (the release of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), global warming was transmogrified into a Democratic-only issue. For the past decade, Republicans have not only been AWOL on global warming, they’ve actively opposed measures to address it. Today, 69 percent of Republicans think global warming is an exaggerated threat.

Over the past two years, we’ve seen the same phenomenon on the issue of school choice. While teachers’ unions have never been supporters of charter schools -- which has made support of charters a high-wire act for countless union-funded Democratic elected officials -- the wire collapsed in the fall and winter of 2016-17. Just as Vice President Gore identified with a single issue, and just as he was vilified by the other party, never before has there been a secretary of education so identified with one issue and so vilified.

Secretary Betsy DeVos’s issue is school choice -- i.e., charter schools and vouchers. The man who nominated her has called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time.” The vilification of Trump/DeVos in connection with school choice began the moment DeVos was nominated and continues to this day. All of which has made it much more difficult for Democrats to continue to support charters.

In a hyperpartisan world where the two parties increasingly dislike each other, in an era of “if she’s for it, I’m against it” and where -- weirdly -- “owning the libs” has become an actual thing (who would want to own a lib?), when one party adopts, absorbs and attempts to extend a bipartisan consensus, the only certain impact is the unraveling of that consensus. The extension triggers partisanship.

Both Gore and DeVos adopted messianic tones in attempting to sway the public to their sides: I am bringing you the truth, and here’s what you must do. Gore’s prescriptions were, for many Americans, intrusive. DeVos’s single-mindedness on school choice has not helped her cause. As Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, said to The New York Times, “Ideology and partisanship has really gotten in the way.”


In the case of free college, polarization has extended beyond free college to college itself. When Republicans hear that Democrats think that four-year college should be free, many are reacting with: not only shouldn’t it be free, but to hell with college! Now it’s not as though Republicans don’t have other higher education peccadilloes. From what Republicans are hearing on Fox News and from the current U.S. attorney general, colleges are already on a conservative time-out. But free college has added insult to injury.

The upshot is that that Republicans are bailing on college as an institution. According to a Pew Research Center survey released at the end of July, three-quarters of Republicans now think higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And based on a New America poll in May, some of this divide can be traced to the free-college debate. While 76 percent of Democrats now agree that “government should fund higher education because it is good for society,” only 34 percent of Republicans say the same. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Republicans agree that “students should fund their own education because it is a personal benefit,” compared with only 13 percent of Democrats.

As progressives outdo themselves with ambitious free-college initiatives and the true cost becomes apparent, the partisan divide will widen, further delegitimizing colleges and universities in the eyes of half the country. As with global warming and school choice, one party’s zeal is sending the other party scurrying. It’s the higher education equivalent of Republicans responding to Al Gore by becoming anti-Earth (although if they weren’t living on it, they probably would have).

Public figures should learn from global warming and school choice in configuring solutions for college affordability. A more constructive approach would be to approach the issue with a little less excitement, and a little more subtlety and humility in search of common ground. No single person or party has a monopoly on truth. In fact, if we’ve learned anything in the era of Obama and Trump, it’s that truth is only meaningful when it’s a shared truth -- when you’re bringing a politically diverse coalition along with you. Many Republicans remain dedicated to destroying the Affordable Care Act because it passed on a strict party-line vote. Any strategy that alienates half the community off the bat isn’t likely to achieve the desired result.

Of course, free college is particularly gnarly because -- unlike climate change solutions to reduce carbon dioxide -- it addresses an input (tuition), not an outcome (graduate economic well-being). In this, it follows in a grand higher education tradition of focusing on easy-to-measure inputs rather than harder-to-measure outcomes (here’s looking at you, U.S. News) and is more easily caricatured as another big government sop to the elite, coastal, college-educated class.

A more moderate, humble approach might be to follow the lead of Arkansas. That deep-red state’s ArFuture program provides free community college to students who enroll in STEM or other “high-demand” programs. If free college were extended to four-year public institutions along these lines, it might just garner Republican support. And that’s the key to a constructive solution instead of the extreme partisanship that seems to have led some Americans to the view that conspiring with a foreign enemy to win the presidency is preferable to letting the other side win.

While other elements of the emerging progressive platform (e.g., universal basic income) also engender Republican enmity, I know of no other that puts at risk thousands of institutions that are bedrocks of their communities, employing nearly four million Americans, supporting millions of other jobs and ostensibly preparing our future work force.

Free college’s descent down the rabbit hole has made it less likely that America’s colleges and universities will lead the development of new pathways to good jobs in a decade or two. Thanks to free college, colleges and universities are losing the support of nearly half the country at a time when they can least afford it.

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Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.


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