Is free college the answer?

According to, plank number one in Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform is a plan to provide free college tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, funded by a tax on Wall Street stock transactions. I think overall that this would be a great thing, a great investment in America’s future, and an entirely appropriate use of government funds. That said, however, I have some reservations about whether this would really do as much good as we might hope.

I loved college. I had a great time there, and I got a lot out of it. And yet, looking back, what did it really contribute to my life and to society? I graduated with a degree in teaching French at the high school level; I actually made a career out of my self-taught computer skills. I studied history, organic chemistry, oil painting, folk dancing, stage makeup, educational psychology, and a bunch of other topics I have rarely, if ever, resorted to again. If I had to do it over, I’d undoubtedly pick the same courses more or less. But a lot of the material was almost more like entertainment than practical life skills. I got a broad education, and feel the better for it, but perhaps there might be a better way?

What I’m trying to say—and it’s hard for me because I’m a very pro-science, pro-education liberal—is that I question the value of a college education. Certainly for some combinations of professions and students, it’s ideal. Research-oriented professions, no question, college is the place to be. Or computer sciences: is there any sight more thrilling than a lab full of gleaming computer consoles?

And yet, as a manager interviewing candidates for computer programming jobs, I’ve learned to distrust GPA’s and college transcripts. I’ve had high school grads with a Linux box in their basement who could program rings around honors grads with masters degrees. Don’t tell me what you’ve studied, tell me what you’ve done.

For me, college was not just a great learning (and social) experience, it was a way to put off leaving the educational system and striking out on my own as an independent adult. It was, in fact, a strategy for remaining dependent and putting off difficult and risky decisions about what I was going to do with my life. I think a lot of my peers were in the same boat.

And then the time came when I did graduate, and guess what? No jobs. There’s a disconnect between what kids are interested in studying, and who businesses are interested in hiring, even apart from the economic factors and normal market variations. Certainly, if you’re going to graduate with a degree that won’t get you a job, it’s better to have minimal college debt than crushing student loans to pay off. But still, what’s the point in being one of the highly-trained jobless?

So while I think Bernie is addressing one of the real pain points in our current society, it’s not as solid a solution as I’d like. College is a great way to prepare for the kind of professions that fit nicely into a college environment, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are a lot of professions that don’t need four years of academic preparation, or even strictly academic preparation at all. And likewise, there is a significant portion of the population that doesn’t do too well in academic settings, and for whom academia is just an exercise in frustration and humiliation.

We need tuition-free college education, but we need effective and productive alternatives to college as well, for all those careers and potential students that just aren’t a good fit for the campus setting. Maybe we should go back and work on the old apprenticeship system, and try to find a way to make it work without abusing apprentices. Maybe we could replace for-profit tuition mills with actual industry-sponsored and directed trade schools designed to build the exact labor force business really needs. Definitely we should make it easier for people to acquire individual college-level training courses outside of a traditional 4-year program—free tuition would be a great asset to Continuing Ed programs as well.

Just some of my thoughts on an early Wednesday morning. What do you all think?


  1. says

    There’s really no particular point on which I really disagree with you, but something about the way you’re approaching this topic rubs me the wrong way.

    I think you’re criticizing a policy proposal for not doing something that it couldn’t possible do. You mention the benefits of tuition-free college, and you’re clear that you think it’s a good idea, but you say that there’s something missing. What’s missing is other policy proposals to address other considerations. Tuition-free college is a great way to reduce burdensome student debt, and that’s a good thing for government to do. Tuition-free college is not a great way to get everyone a job, but that’s not what it’s for. That’s not what college is for. For some particular individuals, sure, the point of college is to get the degree they need to pursue the career they’ve chosen. That’s a perfectly sensible way for an individual to make use of the institution of higher education. But that is not what the institution of higher education is for. College can’t get everyone a job.

    There’s a sort of economic parable which illustrates this point very well. If you bury 95 bones on an island and train 100 dogs to recover one bone each, you end up with five dogs without bones, because there are five more dogs than bones. If you give those five dogs extra training, then maybe next time it will be five other dogs who don’t have bones, but there are still more dogs than bones. No amount of training can solve the distribution of bones problem. Making higher education more jobs-focused doesn’t create any more jobs.

    This is not a flaw in the tuition-free college plan. That plan is fine as it is. What we need is some other policy that can guarantee jobs to people regardless of their level of education. It may be worth mentioning that one of Sanders’s economic advisors, Stephanie Kelton, is a strong supporter of a federally-funded job guarantee program which would do just that. Combined with the tuition-free college proposal, this would give everyone the flexibility to set and pursue their own goals as they see fit. If you want to go to college to get that degree you need for your dream job, go for it. If you want to go to college because you like learning stuff, go for it. If you want to go to college because it’s fun and you don’t have anything better to do, go for it. If you want to go to college to give yourself a few more years of education and accumulated life experience before making an important decision, hey, that’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. And if you just want a job, whether you went to college or not, you can have one.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Thanks for writing, and you’re saying exactly what I’m trying to say. It’s not that the proposal itself is flawed, but we need other programs as well. I’m also suggesting that it’s not necessarily healthy to promote the idea that everybody needs to go to college. Maybe some dogs don’t even like bones, to borrow from your analogy.

      I got your second comment about the typo in this one, and since it was still in the moderation queue, I took the liberty of fixing the typo for you. I don’t normally do that, but now and then I have the time and the inclination to make an exception.


  2. says

    “There are a lot of professions that don’t need four years of academic preparation, or even strictly academic preparation at all.”

    True but irrelevant. The vast majority of employers and hiring personnel will look at one thing first on your submitted resume (if they even look at the resume at all, instead of just report from their software) – whether or not you have a college degree. If you do not, they will not look at anything else. This is the employment reality that you bypass, and the reality that Sanders’ policy addresses.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s a valid point (if an unfortunate one). Having sat on both sides of the hiring desk, I can say that a college degree is one of the least reliable indicators of future job performance. But, as you say, there are any number of employers and agencies who will require one nonetheless. Then again, perhaps if there were alternative programs for getting accredited training to prospective workers, that might change for the better, no?

  3. Robert, not Bob says

    I always thought the apparently excessive requirements for education and experience were just ways to shrink the applicant pool to something manageable, since every job seems to have hundreds of people applying for it.

  4. says

    I think other commenters have made good points, but I want to add that I had the opportunity to attend a Sanders event on Saturday (one of the perks of living in Iowa) and I didn’t get the impression that he thought of this as any kind of solution or answer. The only purpose for this that I recall him mentioning is just to reduce student loan debt. To use the dog bone analogy from another commenter, the idea would be that, if you’re one of those dogs without a bone, at least you’re not going to be crushed by debt on top of that!

    I think that is important (as you appear to as well). But it can even be important for those who do get jobs (bones)! My wife is a social worker. It’s a job field that doesn’t pay all that well. She’s going on 37 and still has a lot of student loan debt.

    I’m also of the opinion that college is a worthwhile experience. I grew up in a rural community where I didn’t really have the opportunity to gain programming skills, so it would have been tough for me to be one of those with a “Linux box in their basement.” I really got my first experiences of programming in college. (Also, I think of the kids from poor families as well (which I was, too, actually). They’re not going to have as many opportunities like that; college could very well be their first experience, as it was largely mine.)

    Lastly, I’m not fully sure if there needs to be a point of having skills for a job you don’t have. Isn’t it good to have knowledge for knowledge’s sake? I would hope you would agree. Otherwise, I don’t see any reason for me (or pretty much anyone else, for that matter) to read your blog anymore. Reading up on “Gospel disproofs” has no value for my job or any job I’ll ever have. So what’s the point, right? The point for me has been just to grow my knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I think that’s good enough. (And, again, if you don’t agree…well, it’s been nice reading your blog, but I guess I’ll have to stop doing so.)

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