Free College for All

Boy, that makes me nervous.

In principle, I agree with the underlying motivations. College is economically beneficial, but simultaneously too expensive to effectively serve the people who need it most without consigning them to endless debt. We have taxpayer-funded pre-K through twelfth grade, so why not extend that principle? The wealthy will send their kids to elite private colleges, just as they’ve already sent them to elite private schools from kindergarten onward; for the rest of us, public education should be public.

I get it. Really, I do. But here are a few of my fears.

First, when we say “college,” we have no idea what we mean. “College” is like “restaurant,” it’s a category that covers an enormous array of specific experiences. So do we mean Taco Bell for all, or Denny’s for all? Do we mean a Michelin three-star experience for all? Resources that had once been reserved for the elite tend to be democratized in deeply diminished forms. It’s already the case that the colleges that serve the least advantaged and least well-prepared students are staffed by the least well-supported and least permanent faculty; I worry that we’re going to make that even worse if we have to offer it more cheaply and more broadly.

Second, I do believe that all students can learn. But I absolutely do not believe that all students can learn everything. Nor should they be asked to. Just as with musical instruments, we are all best suited for a particular repertoire, things that we enjoy and that come to us more or less natively, things that we can push to greater skill and sophistication. Making me a basketball player, or a mechanic or a plumber, or a chemist, or a dancer, would be a waste of everyone’s time—mine, and all those who sought to push that rock up that hill. So why should we assume that all high school graduates should, or should even want to, go to “college” as we’ve defined it? What is it about 120 credits arrayed across the traditional academic disciplines that’s universally beneficial or universally attainable? (The credential is universally beneficial, I get that, but not especially the experience.)

Third, making a service both necessary and public adds enormous pressures toward compliance and compliance reporting. When something becomes a public service that taxpayers pay for, it’s (justifiably) subjected to layers and layers of rules, assessments, accreditations, dashboards and metrics and sign-offs and reporting deadlines. I’ve been working with a faculty member in education who’s developed an interesting model for teaching middle-school writing. But the education journal he wants to write his article for won’t take it if he doesn’t immediately demonstrate the ways in which his curricular element meets state and federal learning outcomes. So rather than writing about the ways in which this pedagogy creates powerful writing experiences, creates student confidence and productivity, he’s having to spend a lot of his article writing in detail about how it meets standard D.1 through D.4 of the C3 guidelines. We lose track of joy and learning, and reduce it all to compliance and “meets standard.” I don’t want anybody to “meet standard.”* I want them to thrive, in whatever crazy way thriving takes for them.

So I recognize that college is madly expensive, out of reach of a huge community of potential students who have to borrow so much that they endanger the very economic futures that college hopes to protect. But I fear that “free college for all” will exacerbate exactly the economic and social divisions that it hopes to remedy.

*We used to say in architecture school that “meets code” is one step above “goes to jail.”

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