BC’s Tales of the Pacific | What educators think of free college

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THE issue of free college has come up in recent political campaigns, so it is no surprise that it has been the topic of much discussion in faculty lounges. Educators, unlike politicians, have to live with the long-term consequences of such tectonic shifts in the way our society functions.

When I started teaching, I ran statistical analyses on my students in order to know what factors contributed most greatly to performance. I looked at SAT scores, whether they lived on campus or at home, whether they worked a secular job or not, whether they played sports, and so on, to see if there was a link to grades. The only statistically significant category I found was monetary. The students who had a direct financial stake in their college education, that is, those that paid for their schooling themselves, got consistently higher grades. Even students who had scholarships, and therefore one would assume were smarter than average, did not fare as well when report cards came out. Students whose parents paid their tuition, or who received financial help of any kind, did not perform as well in terms of grades. I was not surprised.

What does this mean for the idea of free college education? I have heard two plans. One is that college will be free to all and the other is that it will be free to students from low-income families. Before we break it down, let’s be clear about something: college will not be free. Professors will not teach for free and the college still has massive expenses to pay. “Free college” is a term that politicians use to mean someone else will pay for your schooling. Who? Taxpayers, of course. So, if you are a taxpayer, you will still pay for the college even if you don’t know anyone actually going to college, but let’s not quibble about that when there is so much more to talk about.

If college is free to all, what will happen to admission standards? Will schools start accepting anyone who applies, regardless of their chances of succeeding? After all, if taxpayers are footing the bill, it is like free money to the college. Without a financial stake, what would keep someone who had no intention of graduating, or even studying, from signing up for classes just because there was nothing better to do? I know many students who told me their parents told them to either get a job or go to college, so there they were in my classroom. Would the number of those students go up? I assume it would. So, the burden on taxpayers would increase for no social benefit, and college classrooms would bulge with at-risk students.

If college became a right, rather than a hard-earned privilege, high school students would lose nearly all incentive to try hard. Grades and tests scores would become meaningless at the high school level. How much harder would it be to teach a room full of students who had no reason to work or pay attention?

Assuming that college enrollment would skyrocket, how would colleges deal with expanding student bodies and class sizes? Would they expand the faculty as well? What would that mean for the quality of the teaching, since there would be pressure to hire anyone with an advanced degree who could help carry the load?

Let’s move to the idea of making college free for families under a certain income. Let’s say that level is a household income of $65,000 per year, a number I have heard from some politicians. Does that mean a child from a family making $66,000 would have to pay tuition, perhaps as much as $25,000 per year, while his classmate from a family making a few thousand less would get a free ride? In what way is that fair? So, we are really talking about some form of graduated tuition. Well, no one is talking about that. I have not heard one politician mention it. I assume they haven’t tried to answer these kinds of questions.

Let’s address the biggest question of all: If everyone has a college degree, then what would that degree really be worth? Right now, having a degree is a mark of success and intelligence, it opens doors for someone, it gains them access to jobs they cannot get without it. But if everyone has a degree, it is no longer special, it does not help employers identify better job candidates. In a world of free college, saying you have a bachelor’s degree would be like saying you went to third grade. What would that do for all of us who worked hard, paid for our schooling, and made something of ourselves? Would all that sacrifice be wasted? Is the government going to issue refunds to everyone who paid their tuition? “Of course not,” one politician said, as if the idea was absurd.

If my research, and life, has taught me anything, it is that people try harder when they have a stake in something. If you want employees to care about their jobs, make them part-owners of the company through stock or profit sharing. If you want students to study hard and get good grades, give them incentives to do well (better jobs), and penalties if they goof off (wasted tuition). Free college, whether for some or all, takes away all incentives, good and bad.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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