Higher Education Policy Leaders Need to Embrace the Inevitability of Free College Tuition

Posted by morley winograd on August 17, 2016 at 12:32 PM

Ever since Hillary Clinton’s campaign endorsed the idea of free college tuition for America’s middle class and debt free college for everyone, many leaders in the higher education community have begun circling their wagons to protect their current world. Almost two-thirds of all Americans and just about three-fourths of Democrats and Independents support the idea of free public college tuition according to CFCT’s latest survey research.  However, it is just starting to become clear to the higher education establishment that political imperatives, economic necessity, and demographic destiny make the arrival of the disruptive force of free college tuition in their world inevitable.

Instead of joining in a conversation about how to make the idea work, defenders of the status quo in higher education are mustering every conceivable argument to keep it from happening on their watch. Critics writing in the Washington Post, New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education warned of the dire consequences such a disruption of the existing higher education financing model would have on private colleges, leading research institutions and students themselves. Jeffrey Selingo, a former editor at the Chronicle, suggested that free college tuition is a false promise given that the real problem is state disinvestments in higher education. Echoing Kevin Carey, who directs the Education Policy program at New America, he also pointed out that any federal/state higher education compact would inevitably result in unequal subsidies between states, as if that isn’t true for a host of other such federal/state programs.

But these arguments are about as likely to be successful in delaying the move toward free college tuition at the community, state and federal level as efforts to regulate and control other recent disruptive innovations, such as Uber or Airbnb, have been. In today’s information rich, Millennial driven society, you can’t keep a good idea down and those who have tried have been left in the dust of their new competitors

History and economic necessity make free college tuition inevitable. Just as the need to produce a literate citizenry in the new Republic led to free universal primary education by the time of the Civil War, and the rapid industrialization of America of the early 20th century made the creation of free secondary education a necessity, so does US entry into a knowledge age of global competition in the 21st Century make free college tuition an idea whose time has come.  

 

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