Free Public Higher Education, Quality Instruction, and Job Security for All Faculty Members

By Robert Samuels

This is the third in a series of Academe Blog guest posts arranged by the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession in celebration of Campus Equity Week. For information on and resources for CEW, see the national website at

samuels1In my book, Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, I argue that the problems facing higher education cannot be resolved in a piecemeal or institution-by-institution process. We need a comprehensive plan to deal with tuition increases, student debt, decreased degree attainment, questionable educational practices, and the casualization of the academic labor force. Fortunately, we can resolve all these issues if we start with the notion that all public higher education should be free. One reason why we need to begin with this strong claim is that, if education is seen as a private good accessed by private individuals for private means, there will be no way to make higher education a public good.

The Cost of Free Public Higher Ed

The first question to deal with here is how much it would currently cost to make all public higher education free. In 2008–09, there were 6.4 million full-time-equivalent undergraduate students enrolled in public universities and 4.2 million enrolled in community colleges. In 2009–10, the average cost of tuition, room, and board for undergraduates at public four-year institutions was $15,014; at two-year public colleges, it was $7,703. If we multiply the number of students in each segment of public higher education by the average total cost, we discover that the cost of making all public universities free would have been $96 billion in 2009–10, with an annual cost of $32 billion for all community colleges—or a total of $128 billion.

Although $128 billion seems like a large figure, we need to remember that in 2010 the federal government spent $35 billion on Pell grants and $23 billion processing and subsidizing student loans, while the states spent at least $10 billion on financial aid for universities and colleges and institutions spent another $20 billion on aid. Furthermore, we spend an additional $70 billion on various state and federal tax breaks and deductions for higher education each year. In other words, we could make all public higher education free by just using current resources in a more effective manner. Moreover, the cost of free public higher education could be greatly reduced by lowering the spending on administration, athletics, housing, dining, and amenities.

It is important to stress that the current tuition rates are inflated because schools increase their sticker price in order to subsidize institutional financial aid for low-income students and to provide merit aid for wealthy, high-scoring students. If we eliminated the current aid system and each school instead received a set amount of money for each student from the state and federal governments, we could significantly reduce the cost of making public higher education free in America. In addition, by eliminating the need for student loans, the government would save billions of dollars by avoiding the current cost of nonpayment of loans, the current cost of servicing and subsidizing them, and the current cost of borrowers’ defaults.

What most people do not realize is that the use of financial aid and tax subsidies for individual students has resulted in a system where much of the governmental support for higher education ends up going to private institutions that cater to the superrich or to low-achieving for-profit schools. In fact, during a 2012 congressional investigation of for-profit colleges, it was discovered that up to a quarter of all federal Pell grant money is now going to these corporate schools, which charge a high tuition and graduate very few students. What this investigation did not uncover was the total amount of state and federal tax breaks that go to support for-profit institutions.

Making public higher education free would allow more students to attain degrees, because the biggest reason why students drop out of colleges and universities is that they cannot afford the high cost of continuing. Moreover, many students who do not drop out nonetheless fail to graduate in a timely fashion because they spend so much time working in order to afford the increasing costs of tuition and room and board.

Fixing the Academic Labor System

Free public higher education could also lead to improvements in the working conditions of most faculty members who now teach undergraduate courses. In exchange for direct aid to institutions, the federal government could require that schools spend at least 50% of their core budget on direct instructional costs. There should also be a requirement that at least 75% of the faculty have secure full-time positions and at least 75% of the student credit hours are generated in classes with fewer than 26 students.

To both control costs and increase instructional quality, the government could make sure that every student is taught in a small class by an expert teacher who has academic freedom and job security. Using national and state data, I have calculated that we could teach every undergraduate student at American public universities and colleges in classes of no more than twenty-five students for a direct instructional cost of under $5,000 per student per year. I arrived at these figures by extrapolating salary and course-load data from the University of California in the following way. Currently 75% of all courses in United States higher education are taught by non-tenure-track faculty members, and in the University of California system these teachers receive on average $62,000 to teach six courses a year. If we add benefits (15% of salary) to this total and if each course has twenty-five students, the cost per student for each class is $475. With tenure-track and tenured faculty members, if the average salary with benefits is $100,000 and the average annual course load is four courses for professors who teach undergraduate courses, the total cost per course per student is $1,000. Therefore, if the average student takes eight courses in a year, and six of the courses are taught by non-tenure-track faculty members, the total cost would be $4,850.

I am using the University of California as the basis for my calculations because this system is known to have one of the best contracts and compensation structures for non-tenure-track faculty members in the United States. Thus, while many adjunct and part-time teachers in America are paid only about $2,000 a course and have no benefits, my proposed model would increase the pay and job security for most teachers in United States higher education—yet it would be less expensive than the current haphazard use of graduate students, part-time teachers, and research professors.

If the direct instructional cost per student is $4,850, we would be able to reduce the total cost to educate each student while simultaneously improving instruction, through the use of small, interactive learning environments. As the experience in countries like Finland shows, a key to improving the quality of education is to increase the respect and compensation for teachers. It might seem that increasing compensation would drive up the cost of higher education, but we could actually save money by regularizing the use of non-tenure-track teachers and reducing noneducational expenses. Since most people teaching undergraduates today lack tenure and are not on the tenure track, we need to stabilize their jobs by moving people into secure full-time positions. This change would cut down on faculty turnover and the need to hire and manage a stream of part-time teachers constantly moving through the revolving door. Furthermore, by allowing these newly full-time faculty members to participate in faculty senates and serve on departmental committees, the current high amount of service required from professors could be reduced. All faculty members would then have time to take on tasks, like student advising, that are now done by an army of staff members, which would result in significant savings.

The key, then, to improving the accessibility, affordability, and quality of public higher education is to make it free and spend public funds on faculty, instruction, and research.

Robert Samuels is a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is President of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers His most recent book is Why Public Higher Education Should be Free. His working paper, “Making All Public Higher Education Free,” is available from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE),

For information about the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession, see

5 thoughts on “Free Public Higher Education, Quality Instruction, and Job Security for All Faculty Members

  1. The simplicity of this plan should make it appealing to all those who wish to maintain democracy in America. Politicians who want to save money also should take note. If you can rethink unquestioned faith in free market ideology, how could you possibly argue against this plan?

  2. I champion free higher education as well, though not the institutions (universities and colleges) that currently provide it. Instead, I believe that it is possible to increase access to low-cost, high-quality education provided by academics whose material and working conditions are significantly improved by eliminating the current practice of institutional provision of the service.

    I believe the professional model (social contract) used by society to provide services of equal value in law, medicine, engineering and others areas can be tooled to provide higher education.

    I invite you to look at the proposal:

    This is a model that can be used not only in affluent regions of the world but developing regions that cannot afford the current institutional model, thereby expanding the right to higher education on a global scale.

  3. Dear Prof. Samuels and readers:
    I am with you absolutely on making college free. It was my mother’s dream. I would like to do something however small to help bring this about. But my efforts to do any networking or plug into any group advocacy have not yet borne fruit. If you or anyone have an idea of how I can help, please let me know

  4. I mostly agree with Professor Samuels, but I think there needs to be some low fee, so that students will have “skin in the game.” I have worked in the past in an industry that had free training for members. On the day of the training many would not show up leaving vacant seats. If we look at the MOOCs, their completion rate for even one course is dismal. Many of us have signed up for free webinars, and then found other things to do at the scheduled time. The individual needs to invest something to feel invested.

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