The Debate About Free College Reveals Classist Attitudes, Or: Why Charles J. Sykes Is Kind of An Elitist Jerk

Originally publised at Carolina Progressive

Who says liberals are all about expanding entitlements?

The 2016 election cycle has been one big weird trip to be certain. It has unmasked a number of preconceptions that people had previously held about the state of our nation as well as the American electorate. Most alarmingly, to some, is the fact that there are waaaaay more people open to the concept of white nationalism than we’d have previously guessed. For that illuminating factoid, we have Donald Trump to thank. But we also perhaps have Bernie Sanders to thank for another revelation: there are many who consider themselves, or at least publicly present themselves, as liberals that harbor some deeply illiberal ideas. Sanders rolled out in the primary his campaign promise to obtain free tuition to state-run four-year schools. Clinton, though initially dismissive of the idea, eventually adopted her own version of this plan. And prior to all of this President Obama has been in the process of trying to make community college free to all students.

Into the fray have been numerous articles about how making higher education at one level or the other tuition free is a Bad Idea ™. Some of the criticism is nuts and bolts (i.e. ‘How are we going to pay for it all?’) and some of it is a sort of sickeningly disingenuous argument about how we shouldn’t make tuition free because rich people might benefit. And just yesterday, another entry to this canon was posted at Salon, by Charles J. Sykes. Lets just say that this article is bad on so, so many levels. It dabbles in shifty logic, has a condescending (almost sneering, really) tone, makes any number of class based assumptions about poor students, and fails to offer any real remedy to the economic reality of our times.

To be fair, I have no real clue as to Charles J. Sykes broader political leanings but given that his article was posted on Salon, I’m willing to bet that most people (and probably Sykes himself) see him as at least nominally liberal (Afterall, he doesn’t support Donald Trump! Which seems to be the passing standard for liberalism these days, all other political opinions be damned).

Poor = Stupid, Apparently

Right out of the gate, Sykes seems to automatically assume that any and all students that would take advantage of a newly tuition-free education would obviously be of a sub par quality compared to their peers that currently take out loans or pay out-of-pocket. It seems to completely escape Sykes’ analysis that many students currently attend college for free through a combination of Pell grants, scholarships and other forms of aid that don’t put them in debt.

The problem with the “free college” idea is, however, not merely finan cial. It also reinforces the myth that college is appropriate or even possible for all students. That myth already has destructive consequences for both the quality of higher education and for some of the students caught up in what has become a multi-billion dollar hoax.

There are more than a few problems that I see with the idea that ‘free tuition’ would bring on a wave of mediocre students. For starters, let’s just talk about the logistics of providing ‘college for all’. Even if you could make college at any given level completely free (not just in tuition but also in books, housing, food and other costs) the fact remains is that the supply is still going to be far, far behind the demand. We couldn’t give access to every student that wanted to go to college if we tried.

Oddly enough, that may be a good thing.

The main crux of Sykes’ argument in the article is that removing the barrier of tuition would suddenly find colleges awash with mediocre students that can’t hack it, only to eventually drop out.

To put it bluntly, the push for “college for all” sets up students to fail. While the debate over a “college bubble” often focuses on the costs of student debt for those who have graduated, the reality is that somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of students who enroll in college drop out. The dropout rate among lower-income students is much higher. For those students the wage premium for attending college without getting a degree is basically zero.

Later, Sykes cites a number of statistics about the rates of students that have to take remedial classes, along with further statistics about their (remedial students’) rates of achieving college success overall. They don’t paint a rosy picture. And looking at the numbers he cites, along with his aforementioned talk about drop out rates of low-income students, one could be forgiven for walking away with the idea that there is a correlation between being low-income and being ill prepared for college (and we’ll save the discussion about whether income inequality affects the education achievement of pre-college students for another day). Whether or not he intended for people to make this connection, its important to note that for all the numbers he throws out, Sykes never actually connects student income level with college performance. Yes, low-income students drop out at higher rates but given the myriad of non-academic-related reasons why a poor person would have to leave school, that’s not exactly the same as saying that a poor student inherently will perform worse than a middle class or rich student would. There is no break down of how may of these mediocre ‘non-college-ready’ students are distributed across income class. For all we know, the remedial students may be composed almost exclusively of kids coming from mid-to-high six figure income families. But, if I’m being honest, I think this subtle association between poor students and poor academic performance was probably deliberate on Sykes’ part, which is another big reason his article is bullshit (I’ll get to that in minute, I promise).

All of this, according to Sykes, should be reason enough to be against free tuition if for no other reason than to preserve the academic rigor of our higher education institutions. But that idea doesn’t work out even on logical level. It only makes sense if you buy into the classist idea that income is directly proportional to intelligence. As someone who has attended college, I can attest to the fact that the ‘dumb ass of box of rocks’ rich kid who flunks out of college after two semesters is actually rather common to the point that it almost is a cliché’. Apparently, only the middle and upper classes should be able to send their thoroughly mediocre students to college to bum around for a few years while fervently not earning a degree.

Lets review: we’ve established that at the moment our college systems do not have the capacity to accept every student that can afford to pay. This is not going to change even with free tuition. If anything, the supply/demand problem will likely get worse, as the number of students applying to colleges will go up while the number of available slots will not grow nearly fast enough to accommodate. Rather than look at this as a problem, we could actually look at it as an opportunity for colleges to raise their overall intellectual levels. Colleges could and should raise their academic and admission standards. Students that were gifted but held back by financial issues could rise to the top, with a significant barrier removed. Meanwhile, students with poor academic backgrounds that happen to come from a life of affluence could be more easily excluded. It would also help if college backed off of their almost fetishistic reliance on ‘extra curriculars’ in determining who gets in. Partially because it seems that they really aren’t as good an indicator of academic success as previously thought and partially because, again, it’s a criteria that disproportionately benefits the well-to-do.

However, I hate to rag on students trying to get into school because they’re simply trying to do what is best for their overall chances in life. Which brings me to the other reason why Sykes’ article is a flaming piece of hot garbage.

Playing the Hand They’re Dealt

If students and their parents are anxious about the need to attend college in order to have anything approaching a decent life, many would argue it’s for a good reason. That reason would be that they’re largely right. For every Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who became titans of industry without the benefit of a degree or a completed college education, the fact remains that most people who don’t get a college degree of some variety just don’t fare nearly as well financially over the long run.

Well, duh!, you may be saying. That makes sense. But there is more to the story than that. We’re currently in a process where the middle class in America is shrinking and part of that is because more now than ever before, a college degree is an absolute necessity to get a job making a middle class income. This page from CNN money puts the bottom rung of the middle class at just north of $45k a year, using an income based model.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has the 2015 median weekly income for a high-school-education-only worker at $678 a week. Assuming this is gross income, pre-tax, pre-deductions of any kind, that puts the average high school graduate at making approximately $35k a year, before taxes. At first glance, they’re only $10k short of the middle class. Which doesn’t seem too bad, until you realize that is before they have taxes and other deductions taken out, putting their week to week take home pay much lower. Comparatively, an average bachelor’s degree holder will make a little less than twice that much in a given week, clocking in at $1,137. Even those who complete only some college (with no degree) or an associates degree can make upwards of $60 to $90 dollars more a week, respectively to the high school graduate. Its worth pointing out that making $60 a week more as someone who attended only some college is a far cry from Sykes claim that the effect on income of attending college only to drop out is ‘basically zero’ (as quoted above). $60 a week may seem chump change to the upper classes but believe me when I say that it can mean a world of difference to those who are struggling to get by financially.

Aside from the benefits of earning potential of even a modest amount of college education, there is the fact that more jobs than ever before are now requiring some form of a degree. Did the nation suddenly see an explosion of doctors, lawyers and nuclear physicists? Actually, no. Rather, jobs that employers were previously content to give to high school graduates are now requiring college degrees. The phenomenon has been called ‘credential creep‘. Naturally, many employers attempt to defend this with the justification that the skills needed to complete these jobs have ‘evolved’. It’s a notion that I find hard to swallow, having worked a number of jobs that required a college degree only to find out that they likely could be competently done by any ambitious and alert person willing to learn. Some of these jobs so in need of college level skills really amounted to being able to do above average writing.

Of course, that seems to be the heart of the matter: employers are using college as another way to offset costs and minimize risk. Skills that in the past could be and were taught on the job are now the province of schools to teach and the responsibility of potential applicants to possess prior to working. I’m sure among the more libertarian-minded, this is just and right and how it should be. Me? I’m not sold. Many jobs that require degrees seem to require skills that are not so special as to require a devotion of students to a four or even two year degree, and could easily be obtained by on the job training. Conversely, concerning on the job training, there also seem to be any number of jobs where the skill sets needed would appear to be only able to be learned through doing the job. These jobs have such super-specific skills and knowledge that it is doubtful that there is any singular class or degree track in all of the US that would teach the skills required to be able to do the job on day one, no training. Either way you cut it, the need for a degree seems to be vastly overstated, more a fetishation of academic credentials and pedigree rather than a true requirement to perform a job adequately or even superbly.

All of this collectively leaves the rising generation of students (not to mention displaced older workers looking for a second or even third career) in a lurch. Many probably don’t relish the prospect of additional years of schooling, particularly if they weren’t fond of public schools. Many undoubtedly will not do well in college for a complex assortment of reasons ranging from intellectual deficits to personal issues that take a toll on academics. Many would probably rather just get a job and move on with their adult lives. Even those who enjoy school and would excell at it probably dislike the idea of accruing larges amounts of debt. But the reality of the moment is that if you want anything close to a middle class existence, you’ll need to have some amount of post-high school education. Even if you don’t go for an actual degree, many blue-collar jobs require some degree of formal training and certification (think CNA’s, welders, etc.). Which is another reason why free tuition is not only a good idea but vital to many to get even an average paying job: many, if not most, community colleges also double as vocational schools for these types of skilled labor.

Right Idea, Wrong Villain

In a purely theoretical sense, I agree with Sykes’ basic premise: college ain’t for everyone. There are many people that have no interest in going to college. There are many who may want to go to college but just would not do well in that type of environment. And besides the point, we simply couldn’t accommodate every single person that wants to go to college from a logistical standpoint, short of a massive increase in new colleges to match demand.

But Sykes’ biggest failing is that he takes a solid idea and identifies the entirely wrong villain in the matter. For Sykes, the problem are all these unruly and poor ne’er-do-wells that want to attend college. He has no sympathy for the fact that they’ve come of age in an economic system where if they want any chance of having a life not mired by systemic poverty that an education is pretty much required. Oh, and those who are most likely to benefit from free tuition are probably too stupid to make a go of college anyway. He even works in the phrases ‘entitled snowflake’ and ‘free stuff’ for that added zing of oh-so-chic millennial bashing, that’s all the rage among a certain type of leftist bloggers these days.

I’m sure some will suggest that they go into business for themselves. Except that, uh oh, starting your own business is a crap shoot at best. Depending on which sources you may read in that Google search, the odds for a business venture succeeding run from approximately 50/50 to the much more sobering 10% (assuming that you’re going into a tech startup). And the average cost of starting your own business? Around $30,000. Chances are the average person doesn’t have that amount just laying around or stuffed under a mattress, meaning that depending on the business you have in mind, you’ll likely need to take out loans. And again, most businesses fail within 10 years. So, you go tens of thousands of dollars in debt, spend about half a decade trying to succeed, only to come out the other side with nothing to show for it? Remind me again why this is a better gamble than going to college?

Related to this is where Sykes drops the ball one final time. The final sentence of the article is thus:

“College for all” is a costly hoax that benefits neither society nor the students who are sidetracked from more productive alternatives. [Italics mine]

More productive alternatives? Do tell, Charles, do tell.

No, seriously, fucking spill it you classist asshole. If you have some special insight as to how millions of young people can by-pass college and still manage to carve out a comfortable and stable middle-class life for themselves in this economy, then we’re all ears. Afterall, being the lazy special snowflakes* we are, I’m sure we’ll be all too eager to hear your secrets for avoiding tens of thousands of student debt while simultaneously staying well out of poverty.

Of course, he does no such thing. Having dutifully shamed all of us for the grievous sin of contemplating a way to make life a little easier for those who have little to begin with, he concludes his article. Certainly, we penniless suckers are too dumb to make use of his advice anyway. Am I right? To a certain extent, I think this genre of criticism towards the idea of free college is a bit of guilty projection on the part of older generations who pushed the ‘college as the path to success’ narrative hard over the last half century. It certainly fueled the idea that jobs that didn’t require college degrees were lesser than those that did, and unworthy of fair pay. Hence why most so-called ‘unskilled labor’ jobs have poverty-level wages. This dynamic continued until the powers that be found out that, surprisingly enough, to quote Judge Smalls, ‘The worlds needs ditch-diggers, too!’. If the older generation of elites in this country find themselves facing open revolt from the under 40 cround, it may be worth keeping in mind that after spending most of our formative years being told that college was what we need to work towards by people of Sykes’ generation, suddenly we’re being told that we need to revise our life strategies in the fourth quarter.

* As a side note, I’d like to make it a federal crime for anyone over the age of 50 to refer to millennials as ‘special snowflakes’ or any variation there of (including entitled snowflakes). Those found guilty will be roasted alive over a bonfire of burning AARP cards.