The promise of free tuition has become a favorite campaign theme of many politicians. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, facing a primary battle from a celebrity opponent to his left, provided a version of that in his state. The odds are it will cause more harm than good. The free tuition idea follows another political error, that of the federal government subsidizing student loans. That resulted in universities charging higher rates.
The appeal, not only to potential university students, but to young adults burdened with debts from unjustifiably high tuition for an education that failed to get them a well-paying job is obvious. The politics, not just for Cuomo, but for presidential contenders such as Bernie Sanders who have made this type of program the centerpiece of their platform, are appealing, but the results for students and their cash-strapped families, far less so.
There has been little discussion about how a state that continues to produce underperforming students at the grammar and high school levels and that imposes a tax burden that is chasing residents to other jurisdictions will afford the idea. There has been inadequate acknowledgement that the push, over the past few decades, for every student to attend college has simply resulted in the replacement of the requirement of a high school degree with that of a college degree, without any commensurate increase in either the pay or prestige of those positions.
Making college free for all will certainly increase enrollment, which has already expanded significantly. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 20 million people attended college in 2017, and that figure is expected to grow regardless of public financing schemes. Governing magazine noted that former President Obama’s College Education for all Goal would have resulted in a stunning doubling of current enrollments. That would have required more personnel and more facilities, driving up costs even further.
The broadening of college participation brings only the illusion of greater learning. As enrollment has increased, the quality of higher education has decreased. Marc Tucker, writing for Education Week, noted: “…many community college teachers do not assign much writing at all to their first-year students because they cannot write…for close to 40 percent of our college students, the first two years of college add virtually no value at all, and ‘not much’ value for the rest…colleges are typically teaching most students what we used to teach in the high school college-bound track and are not doing it very well…What I have just described amounts to an across-the-board collapse of standards in American education over the last 40 to 45 years…”
A Burning Glass report found that occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree now require one. Employers now require bachelor’s degrees for a wide range of jobs, but the shift has been dramatic for some of the occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree. The credential gap can amount to 25 percentage points or more for middle skill jobs in some occupational families, like Office and Administrative and Business and Financial Operations. For example, 65% of postings for Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree. Only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.
In addition to pandering for votes, the utilization of universities as platforms for propaganda rather than education is a major incentive for “Progressive” politicians to advocate for massive enrollment increases. Using taxpayer funds at public colleges as well as parent’s hard-earned dollars at private institutions, the exclusion of moderate and conservative curriculum and professors provides a four-year indoctrination in leftist philosophy that serves the interests of many politicians.
Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.