The Campaign for "Free" College

Posted: May 29, 2012 12:49 PM
From the inbox over the weekend:

You all don't seem to understand that a Public Education in the University Systems of our country was (essentially) free until the early 1970's... Public universities are supposed to invest in intellectual capital. Period. In reality, it is subsidized...and should be.

The gold standard for the free postsecondary education model is pre-1970s California. The University of California system charged residents nothing for tuition before a series of reforms throughout the 1960s hiked fees to bring out-of-pocket costs in line with a lot of other systems throughout the country. As Anya Kamenetz at GOOD - who is prone to sympathizing with the students - writes,

Ronald Reagan made the University of California a major punching bag of his 1966 campaign for governor of California, with the encouragement of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw campus peace activists as dangerous subversives. Upon taking office, Reagan managed to have UC president Clark Kerr fired—he had been the architect of mass higher education not just in California, but across the country—and hiked fees at the UC colleges to the approximate levels of tuition charged elsewhere.

But now, students in California are campaigning for a return to free college tuition. A proposed ballot measure would force the state of California to provide free tuition for in-state students who either maintain a 2.7 GPA or perform 70 hours of community service every year. How would California pay for this? With a tax on people making over $250,000 per year.

Advocates harken back to the mid-century tuition-free California system. But that's completely untenable in the modern era. Only 10% of the U.S. population had bachelor's degrees in 1970. Today, that number has almost tripled to 27% - and in California, that number is over 35%. "Free college" (in reality, heavily subsidized college) might work when college is the domain of a very small number of people and segregated only to the very, very elite educational performers. As access to postsecondary education has expanded, however, a state's budget would be absolutely wracked by "free college" for everyone.

The "free" system that existed in California in the pre-1960 era dealt with a framework facing completely different problems, as the Chronicle of Higher Education puts it:

Those issues are a far cry from the ones California faced in 1960, when 90 percent of the population was white, the state was flush with cash, and the main challenge was designing a higher-education system that could absorb a tidal wave of new students in the baby boom. The architects of the master plan responded with a promise to provide access to higher education to all high-school graduates who could benefit from it.

And in reality, conservatives aren't calling for an abolition of the public school system. Tuition is around $12,000 per year at public Californian schools - and already very heavily subsidized. A report recently estimated subsidies to be over $23,000 at places like the University of California at Los Angeles.

A college education is a privilege, not a right. Students attending should be asked to take a risk. College shouldn't be a four-year vacation before getting a job in the real world - but that's what these advocates in California are asking for. Postsecondary education should have a price tag attached to it - even when heavily subsidized.

Townhall editor Dan Doherty and I will have an article addressing the rising cost of postsecondary education and government student loan policies in the upcoming issue of Townhall Magazine, and you can watch Townhall Magazine editor Elisabeth Meinecke discussing the issues on Fox News recently: