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.