Higher education should be free

High tuition is a product of the narcissism and consumerism pervasive in our culture.
February 09, 2012

The public spirit has been rapidly withering for decades. Nowhere is this clearer than in higher education. Higher education used to have a reputation as a public good — state governments invested in it to make society better off. But now it is increasingly viewed as a consumer product: something you buy for yourself to appear more attractive to employers.

Those who value higher education need to fight back against this trend. Free higher education won’t happen overnight, but why shouldn’t it be an eventual goal?

Right now, many view higher education as a job training program directed by the market. Addressing the recent enrollment increase for science and math students at the University of Minnesota, President Eric Kaler said, “Our commitment to science, technology and math disciplines is what employers and employees value.” This view is not necessarily wrong, just incomplete. If higher education were only a job training program, there would not be much of a compelling reason for public investment.

As our politics have drifted toward petty (and short-term) self-interest, every proposal for public investment is met with an indignant, “Why should I have to pay for someone else’s fill-in-the-blank?” Education is no exception, and if one sees education only as a labor-market hole-filler, the answer to this question is usually pretty wimpy.

But just because neither political party has had the courage to answer the “Why should I pay for someone else?” question doesn’t mean an answer doesn’t exist. The 1 percenter who will inevitably be soaked to pay for free higher education has a stake in a poor kid going to college. Maybe that kid will help invent a device that can replace an organ that will fail in that 1 percenter down the road. A doctor taught to be selfish might try to patent that device (maybe in order to pay off outstanding medical school loans), which would restrict its spread and raise its cost. If the doctor received a free education and had been infused by society with a public spirit, he or she might give it away for free, as Jonas Salk did with the polio vaccine. Either way, the 1 percenter benefits from the doctor’s education.

There are many other potential examples that I do not have space for. The bottom line is that it is not only in the general interest of society to provide free higher education, it is even in the narrow self-interest of the taxpayers whose rates would be raised to pay for it. You might call it “trickle-up economics.”

Right now, there are some baby steps toward free higher education being taken. Rice University has developed a free peer-reviewed physics textbook; several other universities have already signed on to use it. Many copies of a textbook can be distributed electronically for almost no cost — professors and experts could subvert the forces of the publishing industry by writing textbooks and simply giving them away. MIT and Yale make entire courses available for free online to the general public.

A group of students at the University of California at Riverside has also proposed an alternative model of paying for college: Students pay nothing up front but pay 5 percent of their income for 20 years after they graduate. This step at least makes it easier for those of modest means to pursue a higher education and loosens the chains of debt slavery.

President Obama has said he wants lower tuition and for America to lead the world in college graduates. Setting free higher education as an eventual goal is the way to get there. To do it, we need bold thinking that challenges the view of higher education as a consumer product rather than a public good. We need public leaders in universities and legislatures to show courage in their defense of public higher education and not to retreat under pressure. And we need to reclaim the idea that if society helps someone make him or herself better, that someone will make society better as well.

Eric Murphy is the Editorials & Opinions Editor of the Minnesota Daily. He welcomes comments at emurphy@mndaily.com.

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