Threats to quality and innovation outweigh benefit of increased access
The 2020 Democratic primary has changed the debate on higher education in the United States. When Senator Bernie Sanders first proposed making public college free during his 2016 campaign, most commentators, myself included, dismissed the idea as radical and unrealistic, along with his candidacy.
Just four years later, Sanders is a serious contender for the nomination and many of the other Democrats also propose some form of “free college.” The idea has taken hold more quickly than many expected—but will it work? My answer: yes. But not well. In fact, free college could be the fastest way to destroy precisely what makes higher education in this country exceptional. And there are better ways to achieve its goal of removing the economic barriers to college.
The appeal of free college is clear. Americans have long embraced the college degree as an important mechanism for social mobility, but the price tag has increasingly put higher education out of reach for many. Making public college free would ensure that everyone could afford this ticket to prosperity, and in that sense, would deliver a piece of the American dream. Frankly, it’s hard to argue that this would be a bad thing.
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