There are rumors that the Biden and Harris administration plans to make at least some public higher education free. Is this a good idea? What are some of the potential problems and how might they be mitigated?
One of the first concerns is cost. Whenever you promise to give something for nothing, it always comes with a price tag, no matter how hidden it may be. At some point, someone has to pay. “Who?” and “How?” must be answered with hard data and real money. This means there will be strings and standards attached to any offer of “free” public education. It won’t really be free for all; it will only be free for some while others have to pay.
On the other side of this equation is the “How?” question. Affordability must be faced honestly and realistically. The contemporary answer is almost always that “taxes” will pay for it—not spending cuts, not greater efficiency, not fiscal responsibility, and not making university campuses less like spa resorts and more like basic educational institutions.
Taxes, however, will only take us so far, and the available resources will never be infinite. Inevitably, there will be limits to how much is given for higher education. With limited means, only certain students will be allowed to get educated for free. At the very minimum, time limits will have to be placed on how long a student can have to get a degree, and herein lies one of the great dangers of so-called, “free” education.
Virtually everyone wants the poor and disenfranchised to be able to get an education they otherwise could not have received. But there are dangers lurking here since the no-cost offer tends to remove incentives to work hard for that educational opportunity. It also often lowers the standards to the level of those who are neither able nor inclined to pursue an advanced degree. There will have to be limits placed on who can actually qualify and how long a student can remain at school cost-free. Otherwise, given some of the campus facilities built in recent years, it might become an extended spa-resort vacation for students to socialize, exercise in state-of-the-art sports facilities, be housed and fed, entertained, and play online video games year after year. Education might be thrown in there somewhere, but why work too hard to get out in four or five years when you’re having so much fun at someone else’s expense?
The solution seems simple enough: Students must be enrolled full-time and complete their degree in five or perhaps a maximum of six years while maintaining a minimum GPA. Fine and good, but the moment you place enforceable standards and limits on the educational process—even ones that seem eminently reasonable—you immediately produce a stratification of the system. Yes, some will take full advantage of the opportunity to be educated, but many others will not. And then we will be right back where we started, facing the charge of discriminatory practices against those who are, to varying degrees and for various reasons, arrested and delayed in their ability and/or motivation to pursue a degree in higher education.
All of this points to the fatal flaw in much of contemporary thought, namely that people are essentially good. It is often assumed (without challenge) that when given the right environment and opportunities, people will choose the good and shun evil. Beyond the contemporary and historical absurdity of this claim, Genesis 2-3 demonstrates that creating a perfect environment and sharing a simple standard of expectation is not a fool-proof way to make human beings do what is right. We may still choose to ignore or refuse to pursue what is in our best interest in order to fulfill our own (sinful) desires instead.
At the end of the day, we still must talk about incentivizing education, and not simply about making it free, because over time, human nature doesn’t respond well to getting completely free handouts. Of course, some really will benefit from not having to cross the formidable financial hurdles of contemporary higher education, but the way to make this happen is not by making everything free. Instead, the solution is to create real and reasonable incentives and opportunities for people to work hard and improve themselves and their situations so that they can actually succeed in life. This is the difference between a fully free handout and an empowering hand up. Free handouts only dehumanize us and disincentivize those things that encourage us to become better people.
Mark my words: “Free” education is not free and thinking that it is, is a pure deception. In the end, limits must be set, standards must be met, and prices must be paid.