Dump Free College?

Though Bernie Sanders and others on the left have proposed free college for all, the Democratic Party’s new economic platform, “A Better Deal,” does not include it.

Anne Kim, in Why Democrats Should Dump ‘Free College (Washington Monthly, Sept. 12, 2017) says that the Dems are right to pass on this idea, arguing that while free college appears to serve a populist agenda, in fact it is elitist. White working class voters, the sort who went for Trump in 2016 and whom the Democrats now want to court, distrust the idea and see little benefit in it for themselves, according to Kim. They doubt that a college degree is worth the investment these days. Apprenticeships and vocational training seem to them the better route to a decent job.

A lot of their distaste for free college stems from a lack of trust in American institutions generally, especially higher education. Some of it appears based on third-hand reports of unemployed college graduates camped on their parents’ couches. These white working class Americans, observers say, are afflicted with “economic fatalism” — the belief that the system is irredeemably rigged against them, and nothing they can do will help them get ahead. To them, free college looks like another con.

Such fatalism does not actually square with reality, however. Despite what the white working class might believe about college, a four-year degree does indeed still lead to higher income. College graduates earned, on average, 56% more than high school grads in 2015, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. The education-based pay gap is greater today than it has ever been.

But leaving that point aside, surely it’s a mistake to start making education policy decisions based on what a single slice of non-college-educated Americans mistakenly believe about it. Free college is no more elitist than free K-12 education — and no less democratizing. However financially unworkable the idea might actually turn out to be, it at least acknowledges the reality that a high school diploma does not equip people for today’s economy. This fact is unlikely to be remedied with apprenticeships and skilled-labor certificates. There’s just not enough blue-collar work to go around. The post-WWII days when millions of working class people could earn a middle-class livelihood are gone and not coming back.

If today we accept the notion that college is only for snobs, we not only fail to recognize the economic realities of our times, but also the political realities. Now more than ever we need an educated, informed electorate to participate in and defend a robust democracy. College prepares people for relevant careers, yes, but just as important, it equips them to advance their own interests in the public sphere, to think critically about the information they receive, and to contribute to solutions that will help their lives rather than give in to fatalism.

Whether or not college is free, let’s not forget its empowering potential for everyone, regardless of background or socio-economic status. Despite what you might hear post-2016, college continues to be the primary route to a better life for working-class people. If we pretend that it’s only for elites, then only elites will know its benefits.


William Bryant, PhD, is founder and CEO of BetterRhetor, a company dedicated to closing the college-readiness gap and creating more opportunities for success after high school for ALL students—regardless of income or background.

You can contact him at wbryant@better-rhetor.com.

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