“It’s time to make college tuition free and debt free.” I can imagine the loud, Brooklyn accent and the messy, white hair as I read those words. And I appreciate the sentiment: Education matters, and we should try to make it both accessible and excellent. There’s also no question that our schools underserve minority and low-income students, many of whom would struggle to pay for any amount of post-secondary education, and that college tuition in general is unreasonably high, often costing more than it’s worth. I agree with all that, and yet, I disagree with Bernie Sanders’ proposal.
One of the reasons I disagree is that it seems to suggest that the most important reason some students are not going to college is that they simply cannot pay for it. If they could pay, they would go. If they went, they would succeed. (And this would result in a well-educated and productive workforce.) There are undoubtedly some students for whom this is true. Someone very close to me, in fact, is in this boat, and would, I think, go to college if it were less expensive. However, it is laughable to think that most low-income students fail to graduate from college simply because it costs too much. I know there are arguments to be made about the economic outcomes of a socialized higher education system, but I do not address them here–I am no economist. But I am an educator who has taught in one of the lowest performing schools in one of the lowest performing districts–I write from that perspective, and in defense of my students.
In the district where I taught, some schools had a graduation rate of just over 50%.These were always schools representing low-income neighborhoods. District wide, the rate was around 70%, but for Black and Latino students, the number was significantly lower. With just over half of the most disadvantaged students even graduating from high school, and those that did graduate hardly mastering the kinds of critical thinking, analytical writing, and creative problem-solving that actually matter, it is ridiculous to suggest that what they really need is free college. Of all the barriers between my students and college graduation, cost is the least worrisome to me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if their experience in the education system does not change, making college free would actually put them in a worse situation.
By making college tuition free, a college degree would probably become even more common and even more expected in the workplace. In many ways, a bachelor’s degree has already become what a high school degree was a generation ago. This would likely become even more the case, effectively channeling degreeless students to dead-end, low-wage jobs (and in some situations, to gangs). Being able to pay for a degree is only part of the struggle. You also need to actually pass your classes and persevere in a major over time–and that requires social support, access to relevant resources, the ability to navigate the system, and a mastery of fundamental academic skills. These are precisely the things the school system is so often failing to provide.
Giving someone a free ride to failure is no service. Simply making college tuition free without first changing the way K-12 education works will disadvantage the already disadvantaged. But it might benefit the middle class–those who already understand the system and have a social network that will connect them to college and support them through it. In my mind, at least, making college free for those who would already succeed in it is not particularly noble.
I’d rather think about how to embed these low-income students into wider, more powerful social networks, how to expand their access to resources, and how to provide them with better understandings of and preparation for college and/or career. I even think we could make K-12 education so much better than it currently is that students would graduate from high school with the competencies and understandings roughly equivalent to those held by many of today’s college graduates. That may be a pipe dream, but that is the kind of vision that inspires me. Rather than trying to extend a dysfunctional school system four more years, let’s change the system. Before we make college free for the privileged, let’s make high school work for the marginalized.