Liberate U: Bernie Proposes Free Higher Education

What Common Core has done for elementary and secondary education, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) wants to do for higher education: eliminate variety, locality and, with them, quality.

Such would be the result of Sanders’ plan—which he touted at last night’s debate—to finance free higher education at all public colleges and universities. The financing is a pipe dream. The new federal funding, for example, could not be used for administrators’ salaries. It’s a classic instance of government-by-press-release—or by socialist—according to which we pretend that disincentives to behavior amount to prohibitions on behavior rather than inducements to creativity in its pursuit.

It wouldn’t be a good idea even if it were attainable. In fact, it’s insidious: By elevating the public over the private, it indicates a preference for the statist over the subsidiary.

It need hardly be specified that national funding means national control, such that the ample mandates already tied to federal research dollars, student loans, and the like will multiply in ferocity and reach. And testing, by the way, is a near given.

Even these consequences aren’t the worst part of Sanders’ plan. That honor belongs to the way it would distort the higher education market, constricting if not eliminating the space for private colleges and universities, especially sectarian ones to which no public option is or ought to be available.

The flight from costly to “free” options—free only if one looks past the fact that taxpayers finance them—would either put private institutions out of business, or place them under price pressures so immense that programs that do not obviously turn profits would stand little chance of survival. Pre-professional programs would expand, humanities programs would contract.

But never mind the economic niceties. College is good; therefore publicly financed college must be better.  It is the particular conceit of socialist politics that anything with value would have more of it if absorbed into the public realm.

Meanwhile, it is the particular contribution of the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity to demonstrate that problems should be addressed, and individuals governed, by the closest competent social institutions. These institutions’ value derives precisely from their privacy, subsidiarity teaches.

That is partly because of their locality. Human beings differ one to the next, as do our needs, and consequently institutions closer to us are best capable of comprehending us as unique individuals rather than as formulas. Removing functions from these local establishments weakens institutions with a human face while strengthening those more distant from, and faceless to, the individual.

Equally important is variety. Publicly funded institutions will almost certainly begin to resemble one another to the point of indistinguishability as they comply with the same curricular mandates, bend to the same hiring rules, and imitate each other’s “best practices.”

Nor would elected officials holding the tuition purse strings be likely to resist the temptation to meddle in the expression of political views on campus, or tamper with the content of academic programs, or emit an array of other regulations intended to shape campus climates. (Try resisting “trigger warnings” and other measures to stamp out “microaggressions” when these are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government.)

Private institutions, by contrast, offer an infinite diversity. This is true among them—sectarian and secular, liberal arts and engineering, classical curricula and no curricula, liberal and conservative—but also within the overall tradition of liberal education, classically understood, that has largely been the province of private colleges and universities. This diversity brings good results, such as innovation, but it is also inherently valuable. It is what makes human exchange—our lives as political animals—meaningful.

Sectarian institutions would bear a particular burden under a Sanders regime. Many of those with religious objections to recent social developments, and to the federal mandates that enforce them, have already strained under mounting pressures. Many of them are small. They do not have deep endowments. They cannot achieve large economies of scale. Forced competition with a free alternative is not a reasonable option for them.

To be sure, their financial woes, or at least some of them, can be laid at many of these institutions’ own doorsteps, even if the macroeconomic culprit is the cheap and infinite flow of student-loan credit to sustain their pricing. Still, a President Sanders who would break into a pale and shivering sweat at the first indication of a factory farm, and into a warm glow at the thought of locally grown food, would evidently have no compunction about inverting that model in the case of higher education.

That would be a shame, because education, at least liberal education, is a case in which economies of scale are not to be desired. Having more professors teaching smaller classes from multiple perspectives is preferable to a cookie-cutter curriculum that is mass-delivered to theater- if not stadium-sized audiences.

Such an approach, while it may not genuflect at the almighty altar of “learning outcomes” fervently enough for some, is better for intellectual freedom and variety. If one purpose of higher education is to shape citizens and human beings, not just technicians, surely we do not want students all shaped the same way.

We are increasingly trying uniformity from kindergarten through high school. Higher education has been a haven, comparatively speaking, of quality and variety. It will be until it is subsumed. And President Sanders would subsume it.

Reader Discussion

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on October 14, 2015 at 12:12:22 pm

What a bunch of paranoid ravings about ... about … ok, maybe not entirely paranoid.

1. Do we want more higher education? That depends on what we mean by “higher education,” how much we value it, how much it costs, etc. I could well imagine that society would benefit from greater education. It is less clear that society benefits from more credentialization -- that is, focusing on degree-granting as a proxy for education.

2. Traditionally education generates benefits for society – but also benefits for the individuals educated, who tend to become part of the middle and upper classes. By subsidizing education, we tend to subsidize the (soon-to-be) relatively rich. Is this good public finance?

3. To some extent, credentialization is a positional good: Some of its benefit accrues from its scarcity. Granting credentials more broadly will not necessarily make society richer; it may simply dilute the credential’s status. In a nation in which only 5% of the labor force gets a college degree, it may well be the case that people with such degrees tend to congregate in the top 5% of the income ladder. In a nation in which 33% of society has a college degree, you will not find all 33% in the top 5% of the income ladder.

(In contrast, diluting the status of a credential may make society richer by eliminating undue discrimination based on the credential -- but that’s a different matter.)

4. Assuming we conclude that society should subsidize higher ed more, should government impose some criteria for receiving the subsidy? I’d hope so! I wouldn’t want government to subsidize everything and anything adorned with a Post-It note saying “Higher Education.”

But at the same time, I’d want policy unbundling. Just as government cannot withhold healthcare grants as a means of inducing recipients to engage in some ancillary task (e.g., professing opposition to prostitution), government should not withhold education grants to induce ancillary tasks. Alas, in the case of Bob Jones University, the court seemed to have sanctioned just this kind of policy bundling.

5. Even with appropriate policy unbundling, government subsidies could alter the higher education marketplace to the detriment of establishments that do not qualify for the subsidy. If my state university dropped its tuition to $0, that would siphon away students that might otherwise have attended some other school. By the same token, public social safety-net programs siphon people away from faith-based charities.

The test of such a policy is whether it is reasonably tailored to meet bona fide state purposes. If so, then the fact that it also has consequences for competitors in the marketplace does not disquiet me.

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on October 14, 2015 at 14:53:10 pm


Some very good points, especially the dilution factor consequent to greater availability of credentials.
In a sense, however, have we not also diluted the content of the requirements previously needed for those credentials. As we enlist more and more into the education bandwagon (higher is, at this point, open to some debate) have we not lowered the associated standards such that many who, in the past, could not, by virtue of a lack of intellect, etc, complete a course of study leading to these credentials, are now thrust into the credential mill. Indeed, many ought not to participate in the exercise as it benefits neither them nor their classmates. Rather, it may have the effect of furthering lowering standards and frustrating those who are unable to compete in this arena. Imagine the effect were it all FREE! Do we really need another 5 million highly credentialed baristas?

What is, perhaps, most troubling about Bernie's proposal is that the "universality" of it will, in short order, convert a civic good into a PUBLIC GOOD - and from that we may expect immediate discussion of an inalienable right to *higher* education - and then the dam breaks in terms of governmental / judicial oversight and protection of that right.

Best to leave it as it is.
Better yet, encourage folks to become tradesmen/women (electricians, etc). The pay is good and one has a greater chance of being one's own boss! Best of all, the only micro-aggression with which one must contend may be from static electricity

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Image of gabe
on October 14, 2015 at 15:10:35 pm

It's pretty obvious where this is going.

There will not be a sudden transformation of our universities to socialism. That would be too much shock to our cultural system.

But we are a populist civilization at heart--a republic, if we can keep it--not a civilization constrained by reason. Popular opinion will decide the matter, not rational arguments.

With the cost of secondary education increasing at the rate it is, parents such as myself will not be able to afford to send our kids to college. Since wages are not keeping up with education costs, education loans become less and less desirable to potential students.

The statistically average voter, our queen, Ms Mary Smith, mother of two or three kids, will want them and her grandkids to attend college. Since she cannot afford to send her kids, she will need someone else's money to pay for it. Since the only people she can get to pay for it is the public treasury, she will have government pay for it.

Populism, not reason, rules in America. The change will not happen suddenly. It will happen slowly. But it will happen. Our populist Queen Mary does not well receive the word "no," especially when her children are involved.

Sanders is not driving this. He is following and supporting the trend, so he can take credit for it in the end.

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Scott Amorian
on October 14, 2015 at 19:31:21 pm


Hate to admit it but you are right. As R. Richard has pointed out on numerous occasions we have gotten here because the people WANTED it.

I will say however that the Democrats have made rather fertile ground for the peoples' somewhat avaricious expectations.

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Image of gabe
on October 14, 2015 at 20:28:07 pm

Regardless of the various considerations above, which are certainly sufficient to demonstrate the proposal's foolishness, the first consideration should be, as for any proposed Federal policy: is it Constitutional? A child of ten, after reading the document, could immediately appreciate that such a policy would be grossly unConstitutional, and therefore should be rejected.

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Image of Jeremy
on October 15, 2015 at 01:06:23 am

Gabe is right. A majority of voting Americans want socialism or,more accurately,the something for nothing that socialism promises. Bernie Sanders does,out in the open,what most politicians have done for years. That is playing the role of Santa Claus. He is only more honest about it.

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libertarian jerry
on October 15, 2015 at 11:20:22 am

"The reason Reagan gets away with this, of course, is that his hypocrisy mirrors the hypocrisy of the voters, who also want to be hard-nosed and sentimental at the same time. In that sense, unfortunately, the president's duplicity is more the fulfillment of democracy than its betrayal. We like being lied to."

TRB from Washington, New Republic, 12/8/86

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