Tag Archives: free higher education

In Defense of Free Public Higher Education

I’m late to the party. Last week, Matt Bruenig offered 3 counterintuitive theses about the price of higher education and whether public college should be free. Bruenig’s major concern is that the price of higher education is really a rich person’s issue because most people who attend college and who are feeling the brunt of the price hikes are at least moderately wealthy, if not very wealthy. His follow-up is that progressives who argue for free public higher education are, to put it kindly, missing the boat.

A spirited back-and-forth ensued, a number of critiques were put forth, and Bruenig responded to some of those. Meanwhile, I made a really nice dish of roasted Brussels sprouts and learned how to brew beer.

Luckily, I’ve always liked to be fashionably late. Now I will make my entrance to the party. Nobody get too excited, please.

As an outspoken progressive, I agree with Bruenig on most issues. (Disclaimer: we have met a few times in “real” life and are in a philosophy discussion group together). However, we tend do disagree on some of the specifics about higher ed. Allow me to put my own few cents into the ring where I think I can add value to the discussion that has already occurred.

Matt writes, “So my main point, if it can be drilled down, is that poor people are under-represented in four-year public colleges and will continue to be under-represented in four-year public colleges even if you increase subsidies. I am therefore moved to rail against those who think that such a move would actually make these colleges more universally accessible. They weren’t universally acceptable in the past when they [were] more affordable, and I don’t see that being the case in the future. The fact remains that removing the “pay toll” does not remove the “credential toll,” and we know that the credential toll disproportionately screens out poor people and people of color.”

This is a great summary, and offers a good starting board for discussing some of these issues.

Poor Vs. Working Class Vs. Middle Class Vs. Rich Vs. Uber-Rich Vs. Uber-Uber-Rich Vs…

Students at big or elite 4-year colleges, both public and private, are skewed toward the wealthy. This is true. (Private schools are more skewed, and elite private schools are even more skewed, but some publics are not as far behind as one might think). Poor students are particularly under-represented. This is also true.

But the distributional question is not quite that simple. Bruenig writes, “Recent grumblings about tuition [are] driven by the concerns of the richest half.” This is a very strange way of dividing different categories of people. In my frame, the richest half is not a grouping that makes any sense whatsoever. It includes everyone above $50,000 of income. A family with $50,000 of income facing a $15,000-$20,000 tuition bill cannot be grouped with a family making $200,000-$500,000. To talk about this issue, we need to talk about the middle class.

The term “middle class” has been bludgeoned so hard by every politician in existence that it has all but lost its meaning much of the time. Ignoring the meaninglessness of the term for one moment, if we use a very generous but standard definition of the middle class – the 20th to 80th percentiles of income – we see that about 60% of dependent public 4-year students fit this definition. (Dependent students are those that have to visit their parents during the holidays and pretend that they are enjoying school, while independent students are those who often are either married, have children themselves, or are older than the 18-22 cohort and may or may not have to visit their parents during the holidays). Including independent students in this analysis is difficult, but it is likely that it would make this number significantly higher. This is not to say that the distribution is totally fine; the poor are under-represented and even the distribution of those in the 20th to 80th percentiles tilts toward the higher earners. But it does mean that we are not simply looking at a rich vs. poor issue as Bruenig describes.

Therefore, there is absolutely no way we can consider this simply a “rich” person’s issue; it is much more a middle class issue (and increasingly so as the price hikes edge down to all but the poorest students). Looking at Matt’s original charts on price increases, it is clear that there has been a huge price jump for lower-middle class students on par with that of the rich.

This is not just semantics. The middle class serves an important function both socially and politically, and free public higher education with the correct progressive funding mechanism and the right accountability standards is one possible reform to make college a better program first and foremost for the middle class.

While writing this piece, or perhaps when I was making the Brussels sprouts, I had one of those fundamental epiphanies that we dream about but rarely ever have. In this case, my realization was about how we bifurcate people into categories. Bruenig, I think, separates the world into the poor and everyone else. There are policies that help the poor, and there are policies that help everyone else. We ought to focus on the policies that help the poor. Sometimes, but rarely, there might be overlap.

I separate the world a little differently. I separate the world into the very rich and everyone else. There are policies that help the poor, and there are policies that help everyone else. We ought to focus on the policies that help everyone else. Public college predominantly serves a significant portion of the “everyone else,” particularly non-elite public college, even if the poor are under-represented. And this under-representation is in part due to the cost and incentive structures that are in place, which could be alleviated by policies like free public higher education.

Because I have limited sympathy for the truly rich, I am aggressively against policies that subsidize wealthy private universities. I view public higher education differently, however, even if the difference in socioeconomic distribution at the upper-middle end is not quite as stark as one might expect.

Questions of Socio-economic Distribution in College Are A Big Giant Circle, and Other Endogenous Reasons for The Wealth Skew

Under the current structure of higher education, Bruenig is probably correct when he writes that poor will be under-represented in higher ed if you increase subsidies. But this statement does not necessarily hold true if the underlying fundamental payment structures are disrupted.

Bruenig implies that there is some “natural” (or unnatural but fixed) rate of college attendance. College will always be a rich kids’ game. There is indeed a credentials issue that won’t go away unless we get rid of poverty and improve the K-12 situation for millions of students. (I agree that we should get rid of poverty and improve the K-12 situation for millions of students – sign me up!) But I think that is only part of the issue. The other part of the issue is still a significant pay issue related to the way the higher education system operates. As long as this is true, the way our higher education system is designed endogenously affects the distribution of students, rather than simply being a function of a bunch of exogenous “other” factors.

For example: One of the more interesting reasons that poor students have been mostly shielded from the rapid rise of 4-year college prices is because there are so few of them at 4-year schools. The system works if there’s a small share of these students, but the system cannot work if there’s a much larger share.

What is happening at many selective universities, including public ones, is a continual move away from access and toward inequality. It is impossible to tell at what point access becomes a function of inequality and at what point inequality becomes a function of access. This is evident at public flagships like the University of Virginia, which cut back on its financial aid program for its (already very small) share of low-income students. It is even more evident at the 35% of all 4-year schools – including 51% of 4-year doctorate-granting public schools – that reported increased recruiting efforts toward students who could pay full tuition. It is even even more evident with the prevalence of “gapping” or “admit-deny” practices, in which insufficient financial aid is knowingly offered so that a student can be nominally admitted but practically denied.

At the same time, whether students actually can afford a final net price is clearly not the be all and end all of price barriers. If students believe that college is too expensive, it will limit access. Most data suggests that people believe that the price of college is a barrier; therefore it is a barrier.

One of the most promising arguments in favor of free or cheap public higher education is that it would allow the entire higher education system to jump out of its vicious circle of baked-in inequality. As it currently stands, we might be able to keep the price low for a few poor students here and there – but only so long as few poor students have access.

Other factors suggest endogeneity in the college socioeconomic distribution. (My Microsoft Word does not think endogeneity is a word, but I will use it anyways.) Over time, the class breakdown is not fixed. In the 1960s, college attendance skyrocketed among previous groups of low-income and minority students that did not previously even think of attending college. This was spurred on by the notion that college could be affordable under the Higher Education Act. Their numbers still paled in comparison to white, upper class students, but they grew rapidly. Since then, attendance has slowly moving closer to balance at 4-year public schools. There are many factors holding back this process, but even so it has trudged forward. Bruenig uses data for about 15 years ago; I would be curious to see what the breakdown of socioeconomic and racial distribution is today.

Next, the complexity of the financial aid system serves as a way of keeping the poor at the gates. If students do not have the time, effort, or knowledge to fill out an application, they also don’t have the time, effort, or know-how to fill out financial aid paperwork. If the problem is barriers to entry, as Matt insinuates, the roundabout and often perverse financial aid system that apparently helps the poor also works against them. A free or low-cost system would eliminate the need for this complexity and eliminate one of the biggest barriers to higher education:

As shown in work by Susan Dynarski and Judy Scott-Clayton, the FAFSA is four times longer than the simplest tax return (i.e., IRS Form 1040EZ), and longer than IRS Form 1040. Not surprisingly, students and their families are often confused and even deterred by the form.

Of course, as with any discussion of higher education, we need to remind ourselves that “higher education” varies widely across the board and even within categories of institutions. Most four-year universities — even schools that have doctorate programs — are not selective institutions. Take Long Island University, for example — they offered an “Express Decision Week” in which admissions officers took students’ information and gave them an admissions decision on the spot. It’s a walk-in admissions process, like at a barbershop. While LIU is private, the same types of problems exist at plenty of mid-tier public schools. If the demand is there (and the colleges can be held accountable for providing a good education, which is another issue), it is clear that the current system of higher education itself stands as a barrier.

As is, if we accept the logic as long as college is treated as a good for the rich that allows a couple of poor students to come along for the ride, of course it will always be skewed upward.

Free public higher education puts everyone on the same footing and encourages a shared base of understanding. It minimizes the possibility of gaming the system by locking people out or allowing those in charge to extract excessive rents. There is more to this debate, but making it free with the necessary caveats certainly addresses some of the major problems of higher education qua higher education.

And now that I’ve arrived to the party, I’ve probably just made it way less fun. This is very much like real life.