What Will Debt-Free College Mean for Public Colleges?


Guest blogger Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

At the Democratic National Convention, Bernie Sanders argued that the Democrats came together to support debt-free higher education for all students in American public colleges and universities. The Democratic Platform pledges the party to “making debt free college a reality.” To achieve this goal, Democrats support “bold new investments by the federal government, coupled with states reinvesting in higher education and colleges holding the line on costs.”

The question, of course, is how will debt-free college be achieved. A good part of the answer will depend on what states do to increase access and what colleges do to cut costs. And here, the story takes a darker turn. As Scott Carlson and Beckie Supiano wrote recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by focusing on public schools, the promise of debt-free public college threatens the nation’s myriad private but financially precarious liberal arts colleges. Second, and more pertinent to this essay, the authors wonder how state legislatures and public colleges will respond to the new pressures that a federal mandate would create. Ideally, of course, state legislatures would increase tax support and colleges would hold the line on costs by cutting extraneous spending while investing in their core. But will this happen?

For starters, pressure to hold college costs down could increase public colleges’ desire to shift more of the teaching burden onto untenured faculty members, or to increase class sizes and teaching loads, while moving more teaching online. They could follow Arizona State University (ASU), which, under President Michael M. Crow, has quickly increased online enrollment by outsourcing teaching or, as he put it in his book Designing the New American University (2015), co-authored by historian William B. Dabars, and extolled by former president Bill Clinton, forging “partnerships to expand and improve the online learning experience, utilizing over one hundred third-party tools and services.” At ASU instructional designers work with faculty to design online courses that faculty once taught. Students who once had access to professors are now taught by “coaches,” teaching assistants, and adjuncts.

One cannot help but be skeptical about whether state legislatures would raise the tax funding necessary to sustain, much less to improve, the quality of existing public institutions. Too much evidence suggests otherwise. State legislators, facing budgetary pressures and unwilling to raise taxes, have been cutting funding to higher education. Instead of taxes, legislators have been pressing for new kinds of schools like Western Governors University, which have no traditional faculty. They have been promoting competency-based degrees that can be done quickly and cheaply, but deny thousands of students the kinds of intellectual experiences that have long defined a quality college education.

These innovations have been lauded by Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker. Not only did he push heavily for state institutions to create online, faster competency-based degrees, but he was behind the eradication of tenure in Wisconsin. No doubt, Governor Walker hopes that by providing trustees and administrators more discretion and by reducing faculty power, Wisconsin’s public colleges can reduce tenure-track lines, focus on job preparation rather than liberal education, and thus find ways to cut costs and time to degree. Finally, legislators across the country have been pressuring colleges to find ways for students to avoid or to evade general education requirements, either by challenging the importance of liberal education, or by pushing colleges to allow students to fulfill these requirements during high school.

And, here, the difference between Clinton’s plan and Sanders’s plan becomes significant. Clinton and Sanders both share a laudable commitment to making college affordable for all students. When Sanders proposed to make debt-free college a reality, his “College for All” act sought to make sure that state legislators did not do so by destroying higher education institutions. Instead he proposed that states, “provide an assurance that not later than 5 years after the date of enactment of this Act, not less than 75 percent of instruction at public institutions of higher education in the State is provided by tenured or tenure-track faculty.” In short, Sanders’ legislation would have denied states the easy option of gutting their institutions. It would instead have reversed the decline in tenure-line faculty and protected academic freedom.

Clinton, on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction. According to her campaign website, “Hillary will encourage and reward innovators who design imaginative new ways of providing valuable higher education to students while driving down costs.” (Accessed July 28, 2016). This suggests that she may support for the kinds of reforms that schools like Arizona State University and Western Governors University have promoted and that Governor Scott Walker has advocated. Instead of improving access to a real college education and strengthening American higher education institutions, in other words, Clinton’s proposal might encourage state legislatures to create cheap alternatives to their existing public colleges, and could also pressure public colleges to invest less rather than more in tenure-line faculty. Her approach might increase access to college degrees but also increase inequality between the students who have access to public campuses, full-time professors, and liberal arts education, and students who do not.

In short, without additional safeguards, candidate Clinton’s approach to securing debt-free college could permit states and colleges to move farther away from the kinds of policies that would strengthen existing public institutions. As her proposal currently stands, she offers states and colleges a way to creatively undermine the very institutions to which she so eloquently aspires to increase access.

2 thoughts on “What Will Debt-Free College Mean for Public Colleges?

  1. The Education section of Sunday, Aug 7 edition of the New York Times had an article on a number of new buildings that are rising on campuses, public and private, inspired by the MIT on the East Coast and on the West Coast by the Googleplex to Seattle. The intent is to encourage entrepreneurship, self-directed learning and support as needed from faculty across the campus. While admittedly the focus is STEM/STM oriented it draws across all disciplines including the humanities. These are expansive commitments and not cost cutting retrenching. This seems to mesh well with what is happening in P-12 with such organizations as Games/Learning and Society and other transdisciplinary programs for what Prensky has called, digital natives. The idea of “old main”, instructor lead classes on the rolling lawns will not disappear but the institutions are changing. In many ways they are, almost unintentional paths concurrent with the conservative retrenchment responses by both government and faculty.

    Secondly, the issue of tenure is critical but can be decoupled from the changing nature of, primarily, baccalaureate education. Tenure exists, again, at the P-12 institutions and there is little reason why such can not be extended to P-16. The problem rests with the publish/perish methodology for promotion/tenure. Not too long ago, most research institutions separated undergraduate faculty from those admitted to the graduate school faculty, the research faculty/advisors. It’s true that they worked both sides of the fence but the criteria were different for their promotion.

    Thus the issues of concern to unions, tenure and equitable pay fit well within historic concerns. The issues of the educational programs within the institution seems to rest more within the purview of the institutions, its programs, students and faculty. Coupling these two in a manner to maintain a past image of a university is like protesters linking arms or tying themselves together in order to block a tenable resolution

    • I was at University of Missouri, Brown University, and Oregon State University through the 80s (and at Saint Louis University since then). I have never come across any institution in which there was any distinction made between graduate school faculty and undergrad faculty. When was this “not too long ago”, and at what institutions?

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