by Evan Zilber ’22
Published Mar. 1st, 2021
“Free college” seems like a complex concept. It’s not actually free, and some argue that tax-funded schooling benefits a minority at the expense of the majority.
Really, though, the concept is simple. College, an institution dedicated to educating the next generation of workers and intellectuals, can either exist in the private sector or the public sector; in the hands of businessmen, or the hands of the state.
Conservatives argue that the state lacks the key to efficiency: the profit incentive. This incentive maximizes business efficiency in the private sector, as is shown in the classic maxim of buyers and sellers who always meet at a price which is fair for both parties.
However, considering the nuances of the education industry challenges this widely accepted notion.
Corporations that represent private colleges and universities look at profit as their stand-alone goal. Colleges therefore fight each other in the hope of influencing potential students and succeeding in this prospect. According to free market logic, this will lead to a better education for students, as competition forces the seller to conform to the needs and desires of the buyer. Let’s see how this theory works out in practice.
In order to reach more students, private colleges need to do more than simply improve their institution. As a preliminary, students must know that attending college is absolutely necessary. If this is questioned, so too can the ludicrous price of tuition and the cycle of debt that inevitably ensues from it. The footing of for-profit education is, therefore, in the hands of PR.
This point is proven through looking at the advertising practices of universities. Colleges spent over $730 million for advertising in 2017, according to a 2020 Brookings Institute article. “Among the institutions that advertise,” the article continues, “for-profit institutions spend almost $400 on advertising per student, compared to just… $14 per student among public institutions.”
Coupled with this are the various tactics employed by these same private colleges to up the perception of their institution for potential students and parents.
Robert L. Woodberry, former chancellor of the University of Maine, argues that college rankings motivate universities to “let SATs reign,” “reject as many [students] as possible,” and “exploit statistical keys to the illusion of quality,” as these are the metrics used when the US News and World Report rank colleges.
The market has effectively been uprooted because buyers (students) are influenced to look to certain sellers (colleges which exploit ranking systems) through the influence of foreign coercion (mass media). Rather than look to improve the experience of their students, colleges look to corrupt arbitrary designations in a hope to coax confused high schoolers into joining their institution.
Similarly, representatives of for-profit colleges look to maximize their revenue and lobby for legislation that deregulates the process in receiving federal aid. Federal-funding for nominally private institutions cost taxpayers $32 billion in 2012 according to a Senate report, showing that the profit incentive for college hurts taxpayers and students alike.
Rather than abolish this incentive, conservatives argue that the system as it exists should remain standing, citing the harm that state-funded schools will have on college staff, students, and citizens.
Intuitively, though, the case for dramatically reducing tuition rates is beneficial for all those involved.
High tuition rates systematically favor rich students while hurting the poor. Students with well-to-do parents don’t have to worry about paying to attend establishments which further their opportunity, but the impoverished see a different scenario.
Poor school districts don’t have the funding or resources necessary for their students to even apply to certain schools. The scarce chance that these students meet the criteria for an even somewhat-selective institution is negated by the fact that these students can rarely afford to pay their tuition without taking out a loan or getting a scholarship.
This process continues generationally, as these communities stay uneducated and the job market remains unprosperous.
Maintaining the for-profit college system ossifies the abject status of certain communities. It’s through systemic intentionalities that the poor stay poor, while the rich can grow richer – not, as some conservative speakers assume, because someone chose the wrong major.
Pinning the desire for free college on the quintessential gender studies undergraduate is fun, so it’s no surprise that conservative rhetoric keeps referencing this hypothetical. It’s underprivileged communities and average college students, however, that have most to gain by the “free college” proposal.
EDITOR NOTE: To get an alternative perspective on this issue, check out Kiran Subramanian’s article.