The two hidden intellectual moves behind the "progressive" argument against free college

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I don’t think this is actually new. Marx argued that free tuition subsidized elites from the public purse. Buttigieg is right in that vein (added later: by which I mean that he is arguing directly in the same vein as Marx, not that Buttigieg is correct in his policy choice). Cory is definitely wrong about “What I like about Berman’s essay is how it highlights the extent to which our thinking in hemmed in by relatively recent pieces of economic orthodoxy, the ideas that public goods need to be subjected to cost-benefit analysis, and the idea that education’s primary benefit is higher earning potential.” (added later: by which I mean that we often come back to the same controversies, but think they are somehow quintessentially “recent” rather than “recurrent”) Neither of these things is new. (Added later: I should also say that I teach at a small state college with many poor students, but also some rich students who can easily afford the tuition. In other words, I’m badly inclined to the policy argument as stated, in addition to thinking that the analysis of the ideological context is definitely wrong.)


Take the difference in wages between high school and college educated to Bachelors or higher, 31.8k vs 54.8k = 23k more wages @ 22% marginal tax rate ~= 5k dollars in extra taxes per person per year.

Average age of a Bachelors degree holder is 23 retirement age is 65 = 42 years. So 40x5k is greater than 200k in more taxes over their life time…

In-state tuition at 10k a year x 4 years = 40k.

200k divided by 40k = 500% ROI !!!

So, the greedy selfish choice is to pay for free college.

Any benefit of making the world a better place is purely a nice coincidental.


I take this to be in jest. But I’m sure you know that correlation (of wages to degrees) does not imply causation (of wages by degrees).


This leaves out the benefit to society as a whole to having people trained to think. I do realize that colleges do not turn out 100% people who can think, but there’s enough to make a difference.



When I started state college it cost $48 a semester. My wages did not go up during my lifetime…but I believe my education did benefit society as I am an educated voter, a thoughtful neighbor, a dogged researcher, & a steady volunteer at several non-profits. I pay the bills through skills that I taught myself, or learned from others who were generous enough to share with me.


…the “benefits” of college accrue to those who attain a degree and that it’s unfair to ask the majority, who don’t attend college, to subsidize the minority who do.

There is nothing progressive about this argument. It is a typical right-wing talking point. Maybe it’s Bill Clinton progressive.

For one thing, the benefits of public education acrue to all - whether it’s elementary school or post-graduate. Also, if a benefit is available to all, we don’t all need to use it, for it to be fair. We never did promise equality of outcomes.


It has a R (correlation coefficient) = 0.8647 , that’s way better than a “Strong correlation” and just barely below a “Very Strong correlation”


Why isn’t there a middle ground? Can’t we just work to substantially decrease the cost of public higher education? I think there is something of value of the students having some “skin in the game” in terms of cost. Should it be 30k a year? Obviously not, but some much smaller fee/cost is reasonable.


“Progressives” that argue against free tuition will also point out that we can lower the costs for disadvantaged groups on the backend - through bursaries, debt relief, tax credits and deductions and the like. There are two problems with this:

  1. It doesn’t provide any cost control or certainty, so costs keep skyrocketing - leaving the public stuck with the debt anyway. It’s not an efficient system, as it requires more bureaucratic layers to determine who should be eligible for help, process the claims on the back end, and results in people taking loans (that accrue interest at an alarming rate), making the final cost more expensive. Should someone default on the loan even after interest relief, it is often government that is on the hook. The only people that benefit from that are lenders.

  2. It funnels people into careers they think will provide a better ROI. People don’t always pursue their true interests, or they avoid a broad education because they believe it will reduce their employability. Those people might be wrong..

Bonus: It turns education into a political football - for instance political parties keep arguing over who/when/how much debt relief people should receive, playing parts of the electorate off against others.


Free college will give you windmill cancer. Get screened today.



Do you have evidence that skin in the game helps? I hear this a lot, but I’m yet to see anyone provide evidence that monetary input improves any outcome. People have skin in the game through just the time investment.


First of all, no one wants ‘Free’ College – no one. What they’re saying is “Instead of an unregulated for-profit system that mixes public and private concerns, why not regulate tuition to, say $2000 a year and pay that for every passing student?”

It wouldn’t be ‘free’ as it would be paid for by tax dollars; no one’s saying that the government gives them ‘free’ nuclear weapons, and frankly some of the money required for 6,600 useless radioactive manhood supplements we currently have aimed at Russia could, in fact, be used for education.

So a) NO ONE WANTS ‘FREE’ STUFF; we just want to talk about what we DO Spend our taxes on and are wondering if maybe some of the money we waste on shinyk new, never-to-be used weapons systems could, instead, go to that and

b) Anytime some ‘Conservative’ hump tells you that we can’t afford single-payer healthcare, standardized-tuition college paid for from taxes or, say, tax-supported pre-K-child care (which would make a huge difference to working women), just remind them that we have 6,600 fuel-filled metal wangs tipped with a-bombs that must cost a lot of money, and maybe we could get by with, say, 100 of them. Because IF WE HAVE THE MONEY FOR BOMBS AND PLANES, we have money for REAL HUMAN BEINGS WITH REAL NEEDS BEYOND BOEING AND LOCKHEED STOCKHOLDERS.

Republicans: Billions for wars that won’t happen, nothing for suffering people who exist in pain.


This discussion usually misses some obvious points. When we say free college, we kind of miss the mark. We need to be talking about free secondary education. Welding is a fine carreer. So is auto repair, IT, construction, printing, HVAC repair. My point is that the entire argument that free tuition prmiarly benefits a small group only holds water if tuition disbersment is limited to traditional colleges. By including trade schools, continuing education, job (re)training, and the like, free tuition benefits all of society.


We’ve been having this argument over on this side of the Atlantic since 1998.

And the point I always make is that if you want a system where those who earn more due to their education are paying more, then we have this already. It’s called income tax.


Actually some of us do want free tuition, at point of use. You are right at the other points, but I’ve seen the burden even a nominal tuition can pose and think that should be eliminated entirely.


… Again, semantics matter: you don’t’ want a tuition-free college, you want a college where the tuition is paid by taxes and user fees.

No Progressive in America wants 'Free Stuff." They’re just asking for well-regulated, better distributed healthcare paid for by the taxes they already spend.


Which would you rather live in, assuming the your individual economic and educational circumstances are identical: an educated populace, or a populace with a 4th grade reading level?

You are much likelier to be robbed, step over folks on the sidewalk, and die in the latter.

An educated populace is a public good.


“Progressives” against free college education. Right. Just like “Democrats” in favor of Traitor Trump or “Vegans” who eat fish.