I don’t often resort to Socratic dialogues, for reasons, but this topic lends itself. I’ll be me, and my interlocutor will be Imaginary Interlocutor. For brevity, I’ve skipped all of the “it is certainly so, Socrates…” responses.
Me: It’s a shame we didn’t raise tuition more.
II: Wait a minute. Don’t you support free community college?
II: But you want to raise tuition?
II: That seems like a contradiction.
Me: Not really. Most “free community college” programs are actually scholarship programs. By raising tuition, we would increase the amount of aid we get in the form of scholarships. So students who benefit from the free community college program wouldn’t pay the increase, or any tuition at all. And I want to ensure that we have the funding to provide a quality education to all of our students.
II: Huh? If community college is free, wouldn’t everyone get it?
Me: No, that’s not how it works. “Free community college” programs are actually scholarships for selected groups of students. The scholarships cover tuition, and sometimes fees. So if we raise tuition, we get more from the scholarships.
II: Wait, so it’s not free?
Me: It’s free to certain students, but we still have to pay our bills. It’s cost-shifting. The appeal of “free community college” is that it shifts some of the cost from people who really can’t afford it to people who really can. In return, we get a more productive workforce, a more peaceful society, and a more informed electorate. It’s a good deal.
II: You mean like welfare? Or socialism?
Me: I mean like public schools. Or libraries. Or the military, for that matter. Those are public goods that draw public support. The same applies here.
II: But I worked my way through college! Why can’t kids today?
Me: They aren’t kids. Besides, tuition has gone up so much faster than entry-level wages. Most students now work more than students used to, but they make less, relative to tuition. “Kids today” aren’t lazy; if anything, they work harder than we did. We just made it harder on them. I support making it easier on them. After all, they’re the ones who’ll be paying for our Social Security. Or not.
II: But taxes are bad. Why can’t we let the private sector handle it?
Me: Because those schools keep folding, and we keep eating those loans in the form of...wait for it...taxes. I’d rather pay upfront for a good product than keep paying later for a bad one.
II: Okay, but caveat emptor. Shouldn’t the market choose?
Me: No, because the benefits aren’t just personal. Formal education after high school leads to all sorts of better social outcomes, which save money on the back end. Asking kids right out of high school to pony up tens of thousands of dollars a year that they don’t have, without aid, won’t work. We’d wind up with a less productive and more desperate society.
II: Are you saying that people who don’t go to college aren’t productive?
Me: No. I’m saying that more people will be more productive if they’re more educated. My grandfather dropped out of the ninth grade, but he was able to support a family on his wage as a unionized electrical lineman for Detroit Edison. Jobs like those aren’t as easy to find as they used to be, and even those jobs now require training beyond high school. Policies that made sense seventy years ago don’t work now.
II: But we still have electrical linemen!
Me: Yes, but now they require post-secondary training, like the JCP&L program at Brookdale.
II: Nice plug.
II: This still doesn’t seem right. Wouldn’t you rather eliminate tuition altogether?
Me: Absolutely! As long as we have an adequate revenue stream to replace it. The current programs don’t eliminate tuition; they pay it. Right now, tuition and fees are about 57 percent of our budget. Eliminate that revenue without a replacement, and the place would collapse. What good does access to a closed college do?
II: Well, none...
Me: Exactly. Replace that tuition with public funding, drawn from progressive taxation, and we have a deal. Until then, we need to raise tuition to partially make up for the flat funding and increasing costs we actually have.
II: Hmm. Smells like socialism to me.
Me: Or like America before the 1970’s. Harry Truman supported free community college. When public colleges were free in the decades after World War Two, we had the greatest economic boom in the history of humanity. If you want to call Harry Truman or Nelson Rockefeller socialists, that’s on you. I just want a policy that works.
II: Make public colleges great again?
Me: Hey! Common ground! Lemme buy you a free beer...