Free College is Not a Game Changer

There have been two battle cries in our current election cycle, “Free College!” And “The System is Rigged!”  My analysis is that the second slogan is actually true (but not in the way it thrown around) which makes the first plan not all that useful.  To understand why I think free college is not a game changer you need to understand what education is really about.

Yes education is certainly about acquiring certain skills and knowledge and most schools are pretty good at that (believe it or not!)  But education also has another function, and that is a social sorting function and this is the part that is certainly rigged.

You could, if you wanted to head over to EdX and get yourself a Harvard education.  You really can, if a Harvard education is about getting information.  But as you will quickly find out, knowing as much as a Harvard graduate is not the same as being a Harvard graduate.  Granted there are a few things you won’t get in your online Harvard education, things like mentorships, but ultimately actually going to Harvard actually means that you are the kind of person who can go to Harvard which means you can get the kinds of jobs that the kinds of people who go to Harvard get.  It is pretty much that circular.

Which is not to say that Harvard folks are not smart.  They certainly are.  But we have a real problem in defining what “intelligence” really is.  How it is defined now, we know that socio-economic status is very closely correlated with both IQ and school achievement.  But again, the process could well be circular.

So, we know that kids raised in a rich environment are more intelligent.  Most likely it is that the environment stimulates brain development and a more developed brain is smarter.  House full of books, trips to zoos, museums and Europe — all stimulate brain development and make people “smarter.”  But wait there is more.

Psychologists like to say that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.”  And what they really mean is that how and what you measure in turn defines what intelligence is, or at least what it is perceived to be.  Let me give you an example with this little thought experiment.

So, you are an intelligent reader, perhaps college educated, certainly widely read and schooled in critical thinking.  Then you should have no problem whatsoever with this short little “college entrance exam.”  You don’t have to actually do it, just look at it and you will immediately know what kind of score you would probably get on this.  OK, go “take the test” and come back.  I’ll wait.

How did you do?  I know for myself that my score on the test would be a big fat zero.  Imagine that the skills and knowledge measured by this test were the ticket to the upper middle class.   Upper middle class homes would all be conservatories of music.  Here is another thing to consider, especially if you are one of the few that aced this exam.  If you aced the exam, you get to go to a “selective” college which is great for you!  Congratulations!

Oh, but wait, there is some “affirmative action” program that lets in kids that didn’t quite have access to your musical education.  Unfair right?  You have much better qualifications than they do!  Because, of course, this test measures musical ability perfectly.  Or does it?

Before you answer, consider a few people who know a thing or two about music, but could not pass this test, starting with the Beatles.  Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music.  Are people who passed this test really musically “smarter?”  I think the same can be said of SATs and other academic tests.

My point?  What we call “smart” and what actually is “smart” certainly overlap, but are not necessarily the same thing.  An article in the Atlantic on the subject of free college points out that the “selective” California schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley and UCSD) are full of kids who got near perfect SAT scores and have near perfect grades.  Yes, I am sure they are smart.  I am also sure that their upper middle class parents exposed them not only to zoos and museums, but also professional journals and SAT prep courses.

Another example, the students at the technical college often times struggle with writing academic papers in APA format.  They have not had much exposure to academic writing, if any.  Children of doctors and lawyers surely get exposed to academic writing style in high school, and surely their parents make sure they do it well as they probably have professional journals around the house.  Writing papers in college is a breeze.  Which is why almost every kid at UCLA is getting A’s.

Excuse me while I digress, but if college is supposed to be a meritocracy shouldn’t the best of the best of those kids get A’s and the rest B’s and C’s.  Oh, there would be a riot if they did that, never mind.  Back to the article in progress.

So, upper middle class kids get A’s in “selective” colleges, which allows them to get into “selective” professional schools (medical and legal) or get the best internships and jobs.  And then they take their kids to zoos, museums, and Europe and the cycle continues.

Let’s face it, in our society a college degree is really a filter.  It separates a person from the “common riff-raff.”  If you don’t believe me, do a Google image search on “College students on the quad.”  Looks like Paul Ryan’s interns.  Lower college tuition is not going to change this, people will simply find another filter.

For many people, college is not really about getting smart, it is simply a marker that they travel in those circles.  Free college tuition is not going to help this.  If anything it will push the price of private colleges even higher.

This does not mean that there is not anything we can do.  We certainly need to strengthen funding for our public colleges to make them as accessible as possible.  We need to have college admission systems that value diversity, not only culturally or ethnically, but also in how we assess “intelligence.”  SAT tests were supposed to bring in a pure meritocracy.  High scores supposedly were indicative of pure ability.  It was originally said that you “could not study” for them.  That has turned out not to be true.  And they only measure a small slice of what might be called “intelligence.”  So, we can do better.

We can also do better in providing education that matches real needs in the job market.  Everyone talks about how we need so many more people who can write computer code.  Yet it is not taught widely in secondary schools.  We could do better.  We can test for “intelligence” better as well and understand it better in society.

Unfortunately there is no way to “unrig” the educational system.  There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy (except maybe Major League Baseball, and I am not even sure about that) and social advantage is always going to be a factor.  The winners of today’s economic system will want to hire people such as themselves, who will come from families like their own.  And it will probably also always be true that kids from well off families will always be “smarter” because their advantages in their home environment.

A fully funded Head Start system is probably the best way to “unrig” the educational system, not free college.



  1. kestrel says

    Love it. Very thoughtful. I’ve often wondered what a good definition of “intelligence” is and have never found a good one.

    Also, on the Head Start program: we also need to consider that what we do to women, we are doing to children. So for example cutting food stamps (or whatever that program is called now) or limiting it etc. (such as not allowing disposable diapers) has a very real effect on children and how (or whether) they will grow up. Food is like a miracle drug; we need to stop denying it to growing children. They are the future.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    The unspoken question here is: what is education for?

    If it’s intended as a way of filtering out the riffraff from the top jobs, while keeping the proles quiet, the streets swept and the factories full of drones, it’s pretty much working as designed.

  3. lanir says

    Education is treated in really bizarre ways. Because everyone is so quick to take credit for successes and pass blame for failures, we get a landscape where most meaningful decisions seem to be made based on junk data.

    I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before but I would have to agree that balancing out early schooling is better than trying to fix the college system. Ideally we’d get both of course. I personally always did great on tests. Actual school work in grade school and highschool was made to be very boring and monotonous to me though, so I did mediocre at homework and got C’s mostly on report cards. This was not seen as a big sign pointing out an opportunity to alter my education in a beneficial way. Instead it was treated as a very personal failing and I was shamed and blamed for not reaching my potential. By the time I got to college I had lots of bad educational habits and I never did graduate. But I recovered later by teaching myself a complex technical field solely by reading books and eventually turned that into a career.

    My story is not unique. Even in the small town I grew up in I met someone a county or two over whose story fit all of what I just described. If we’d grown up in rich households and run into this sort of situation it’s likely a personal tutor would have been sought and eventually we’d have skipped a grade or two ahead. In my case the school actively sought to push me in the other direction by putting me in the least advanced, most remedial classes available.

    Until the junk data is weeded out, having these extra family resources to throw at education will remain the most reliable way to course correct when things go wrong. And I suspect that for various reasons less things go wrong for people who have these resources to begin with.

  4. Chris Cody says

    Some interesting idea starters. I don’t want to assume, but from what you posted it doesn’t appear you have a background in intelligence tests commonly used. They are not content knowledge tests. They are accurate indicators of likely success at school, in that the lower your score the harder school will be for you. However, they do not measure willingness to work hard or determination . Their most common and nearly only use in education is being a part of determining whether a student qualifies for certain categories of Special Education or TAG. I’ve never heard of intelligence testing being part of college exceptance nor do I know of any other specific applications that are common. They do have their place, but it is limited. Intelligence test scores generally stay consistent over a person’s life regardless of educational experiences.
    I can agree with the idea that perhaps taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize rich kids going to Harvard. However, that isn’t the experience of most college students and our current system is a travesty. One thought might be questioning whether one really needs four years of random courses alongside a small specific core that is one’s major. I guess it depends on what college’s purpose is.

    • Midwest Humanist says

      I agree with you that “real” intelligence tests, such as the WAIS and WISC are in fact much better than I give them credit for in this log post, but the fact of the a matter is that a vanishingly small number of people actually take those tests (because as you know they have to be given individually by a psychologist). So most people take some sort of “IQ proxy” such as the SAT, which has a similar function of ranking people by “intelligence.” And it is those proxies, that are much more often used, that are actually much more prone to socio-economic influences I talked about.

  5. consciousness razor says

    Then you should have no problem whatsoever with this short little “college entrance exam.”

    It’s not a college entrance exam. It’s an AP music theory (and aural skills) test. If you didn’t pass, you would just take the freshman-level courses, which every music school offers, not fail to enter the music program or fail to be admitted to the college.

    I did have the advantage of taking a theory class in high school, and I had already developed an interest in composition and theory (and all sorts of math, which is really the critical part). So that certainly meant quite a few easy A’s for me.

    On the other hand, a lot of people were better performers than me and not so good at subjects like music theory. They’re the ones who usually got music scholarships, since auditions are usually the biggest determining factor for things like that. I had to settle for more generic/all-purpose scholarships.

    My parents certainly weren’t rich. There were some colleges I couldn’t go to, not without a pile of debt at least. I simply didn’t apply to some colleges, the vast majority of them in fact. But not going to Harvard because I couldn’t afford it without scholarships or wouldn’t be admitted (let’s say) isn’t the same thing as not going to any college at all. There’s some value in going to a school that isn’t Harvard, isn’t there? I’d say that I’m satisfied with the education I got. So why wouldn’t it be a game changer if kids didn’t have to come up with the money for public school tuition?

    You don’t have to actually do it, just look at it and you will immediately know what kind of score you would probably get on this. OK, go “take the test” and come back. I’ll wait.

    Nobody could complete the first four questions without the recordings.

    Before you answer, consider a few people who know a thing or two about music, but could not pass this test, starting with the Beatles. Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music. Are people who passed this test really musically “smarter?”

    They’re musically literate and numerate, which isn’t synonymous with smarts or intelligence. Again, if you can’t read or count, music schools will teach you how to do such things. Because they do actually teach stuff in music schools.

    But yes, if you’re musically illiterate or innumerate, there are a whole lot of things you don’t know or understand about music. Nobody is claiming you don’t know a thing or two, but the purpose of getting a music education is to know more than a thing or two.

    It’s like saying you can balance your checkbook, therefore you must know a thing or two about math. I’m sure you do know a thing or two. Academically trained and educated mathematicians do more than balance checkbooks. It’s kind of insulting that this needs to be explained in the case of a subject like music, but some people don’t seem to appreciate that it’s a serious discipline that covers a broad array of different topics. Selling a bunch of records or playing some great songs, as valuable as that may be, simply isn’t a substitute for that. (For that matter, vacationing in India to talk to a guru and play a sitar also doesn’t mean you understand much of anything about a part of non-Western musical theory, history, culture, performance practice, etc.)

    • Midwest Humanist says

      I think you missed my point, yes I understand that is only an AP test, but imagine if it WAS a college entrance exam, how different would our education system be?

  6. consciousness razor says

    I think you missed my point, yes I understand that is only an AP test,

    It sounds like one of your points was that the Beatles know enough about music, and they couldn’t pass it. So, you express some doubts about whether I’m really “smarter” than them about music if I can pass, apparently because you’re not sure how or if musical knowledge can be tested or whether this test measures anything about it.

    I don’t know how this is supposed to relate to affirmative action, which you also brought into the mix. As a placement exam, it’s used to determine whether or not you already know certain things about a subject or have developed certain skills. The idea is that you don’t need to be put into a course which will teach you things you already know. Not perfect or comprehensive by any means, but a way to gauge where you are in relation to others. Not who is prestigious enough to skip the theory 100 class (as if that were a great accomplishment), and not whether you’re at Harvard or some other college or no college.

    but imagine if it WAS a college entrance exam, how different would our education system be?

    It would be different. I don’t know — very different.

    I don’t get what that has to do with whether or not free tuition changes anything. It certainly would, for a whole lot of people. I think of that as separate from questions about testing methods, what things should be tested, how tests/results should be used, and so forth.

    I do agree with you about programs like Head Start. And I will agree that improving access to college is very late in the game. So of course there’s a lot to fix about primary and secondary education too, as well as a bunch of other factors that aren’t strictly about education systems themselves. To begin with, why should things like local property taxes determine how much funding a school district gets? Yes, public schools are “free” in that sense, but that’s nowhere near enough to make it fair or equal, which is what we ought to be aiming for. Why should there be so many local officials who have so much control over their own tiny educational fiefdoms? Shouldn’t kids have the same quality education, no matter where they live, how rich their district happens to be, how much some feel like buying an expensive new stadium, etc.? Why isn’t the system built a completely different way, starting with preschool and kindergarten?

    • Midwest Humanist says

      I can certainly agree with the last several paragraphs of your latest comment and not to be snarky, I have pondered and considered many of those same ideas. Many years ago, I read the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol, it sounds as though you might have read it as well. He certainly highlights massive problems with our school systems. It also helped that I lived in St. Louis for a while and was very familiar with East St Louis. I also worked in downstate Illinois schools where, at the time, local property taxes were basically the only source of funding for schools. As a result, the schools I worked in were able to spend about 1/5 or 1/6 per student what the suburban schools around Chicago were spending. So, yes, I have see first hand how schools are “rigged” in that sense. And yes, I will probably write about that some day. I was trying to keep to one idea in my post.
      You raise some really great issues, ones that we need to struggle with as a country and that I hope we can discuss here.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @Consciousness razor: you have now proved you’ve missed the point. You’re focussing too closely on which specific example was chosen, presumably because you coincidentally have some knowledge in that area. The specifics of the example are irrelevant. The point is merely that there is a test which is an effective filter on social mobility, and that certain people have a leg up on passing it because they’re already members of the target class and thus have access to tuition which gives them an advantage, even if they lack innate talent.

    I have lived with three teachers, and know quite a few more. From my observations of these professionals over decades I have come to two conclusions:
    1. the worst thing about being a teacher is that everyone thinks they (a) know your job and (b) how you could do it better.

    When I meet people, I say “I’m a chemical engineer.” I’ve grown used to the blank faces. Nobody has much to say about my profession. All they think they know about it is that I must be clever, and I do something with chemicals. They’ve never been on the receiving end of some chemical engineering, and they (generally) don’t want to look dumb. They therefore have very little to say, unless and until I enlighten them further. There are a tiny minority of overly-self-confident blowhard fools who try to bluff that they know what I do, but they’re fairly easily shot down.
    Teachers, I’ve observed, get a very different reaction. Say “I’m a teacher”, and everyone, every single person without exception, has a detailed response. Every single one of them has been on the receiving end of some teaching, and this has left them with some very definite ideas about how it should or should not be done.
    Never mind that having been on the receiving end of some teaching qualifies you to have an opinion about how it’s done in much the same way that being on the receiving end of some transplant surgery qualifies you to start cutting into people. They know what a teacher does because they’ve seen it. It’s obvious. They don’t think about what they never saw – the lesson preparation, the marking, the form-filling, the endless management meetings.
    Of course, some are the supportive “I couldn’t do what you do” types. Some are the “Oh god I hated maths/science/history”. Some are the “you lazy lot you’re only in it for the short hours and long holidays”. And some, a tiny minority, are the overly-self-confident blowhard fools mentioned previously, who are even worse because there’s less scope for shooting them down.

    2. the government won’t leave you alone.
    The single biggest thing that seemed to me to get in the way of teachers doing their job properly, which is to say as they would wish to do it, was the constant need of the government to change what it was they were supposed to be doing. Every new education secretary would come in full of big ideas. The first thing they’d do would be sweep away all the stuff their predecessor had done, and bring a bunch of new stuff. And just as the profession got to grips with that, the boss would change and everything would be thrown out and turned around. The waste was catastrophic. I think the best thing any new education secretary could do would be to say “I’m not changing anything. As you were.”, and just leave teachers to it for ten years. Constant pointless change for the sake of it is ridiculous.
    However, it’s completely impossible that this will ever happen, because the only people who ever make it far enough up the greasy pole of politics to become education secretary are precisely the kind of overly-self-confident know-nothing blowhard fools I try to avoid.
    It’s depressing.

  8. that guy on the internet says

    @OP: agreed, mostly. I do want to raise a couple of questions/quibbles.

    First, I’m not aware of anyone making the kinds of claims you refer to regarding the SAT (at least in the past fifty years or so). It’s not an IQ test, and it makes no claim to measure “g” (or whatever we want to call “intelligence”). The College Board calls it a measure of preparation for college-level work, which is more-or-less the opposite of a pro-egalitarian measure of native ability. I do recall pro-egalitarian claims being made for IQ testing in England, as a way to partially counteract the dead hand of the English class system. (One great thing about England: since their class system was a point of pride for centuries, they don’t pretend they don’t have one! Cf: race in the U.S.) But the SAT? Not that I can recall. (Which I mean literally: I’m happy to be reminded or to be pointed at things I’ve missed altogether.)

    Just to clarify: I am aware of debates about whether the SAT is culturally biased — but, IIRC, those mainly turn out to be debates about whether the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college (as it actually exists) are culturally biased. (Which, in fact, they are; that’s how “culture” works.)

    Second, I want to quibble with the general notion that “free college is not a game changer.” Now, I think what you mean is, “free college is not a panacea for inequality and isn’t even the best way to attack the problem,” which I agree with. But it’s worth noting that we know that free (or low cost) college can be a game-changer of a sort, since it has been. From the GI Bill to things like the University of California system and beyond, making higher education financially accessible has transformed American society and culture. (And, alarmingly, we’ve been losing ground on this for decades.)

    Given your day job, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But I thought it was worth saying out loud anyway.

    In any event, we do know (the evidence is about a solid as it gets in social science) that programs like Head Start and Abcedarian have long-term benefits for the recipients; that the benefit-cost ratio for early childhood interventions is higher (sometimes much higher) than that of the alternatives; and that part of the benefit of early childhood intervention is that it increases the return to later interventions — that is, a dollar spend on Head Start increases the benefit of a dollar spent on college tuition subsidies. So it’s pretty clear that we’re substantially underinvesting in early childhood interventions compared with other anti-inequality strategies.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that despite my quibbles, I completely agree with your point.

    BTW, do you know (or know of) Jim Heckman at the University of Chicago? (If not, you might look him up: he’s done a lot of work marshalling and disseminating the evidence about the value of ECE programs.)

    • Midwest Humanist says

      This from a NYT article ( Here is the relevant quote:

      Furthermore, the SAT is largely a measure of general intelligence. Scores on the SAT correlate very highly with scores on standardized tests of intelligence, and like IQ scores, are stable across time and not easily increased through training, coaching or practice. SAT preparation courses appear to work, but the gains are small — on average, no more than about 20 points per section.

      The author is an Associate Prof of Psychology at Michigan State.

      In this case, whether the SAT is “culturally biased” against certain groups (Hispanics, African-Americans, women, etc.) is not really what I am getting at, although that is a factor. It is “culturally biased” in the sense that you talk about in your comment in that the SAT (and it’s proxies: grades in school, degrees from college, etc.) circularly define what is “smart” in our culture. That is to say, I am considered “smart” because I went to graduate school, teach college and so on. Someone who, say, fixes cars, is not as often considered “smart,” even though I can’t even begin to fathom how they do what they do. That is a cultural bias.

      Your other point about education is VERY well taken. I do absolutely believe that education for it’s own sake is an incredibly valuable thing. And yes, restricted educational programs (that is programs that allow some people to further their education) can make a huge difference in the economic well being of those who participate in the program. I would say that such programs allow the “college educated” stay an “exclusive club” while sneaking in a few new members. It retains its economic benefit and the new members get that benefit. But if “everyone” graduates from college, the club is no longer “exclusive” and the economic value will drop. And society will just substitute another kind of exclusivity, such as graduating from a private college or having an advanced degree.

      Of course I agree with you 100% about Head Start and such. I would also say that we need to expand our definition of what “smart” and “qualified” mean in our society.

  9. Siarl says

    The thing about college currently is that 1) it leaves people hugely in debt 2) you can’t get most jobs without a degree. Even jobs you could have done a couple decades ago without a degree now usually require one.

    So, you could fix point two, but how? Or you could make it affordable for everyone to go to college. It’s not really about education or intelligence. It’s about quality of life and survival.

    Of course, I’m under no illusion this will be a permanent fix. I think that the goalposts will just be moved to needing a graduate degree eventually. But how else do you solve this? I mean, personally, I think universal basic income would be ideal, but that still seems like a non-starter, despite the ever increasing automation of former jobs…

    (Also, sorry if I missed something. I’m having a bad brain-fog day. Auto-immune diseases are the best! /sarcasm)

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