Magazine article Dissent

Why Free College Is Necessary

Magazine article Dissent

Why Free College Is Necessary

Article excerpt

Free college is not a new idea, but, with higher education costs (and student loan debt) dominating public perception, it's one that appeals to more and more people-including me. The national debate about free, public higher education is long overdue. But let's get a few things out of the way.

College is the domain of the relatively privileged, and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future, even if tuition is eliminated. As of 2012, over half of the U.S. population has "some college" or postsecondary education. That category includes everything from an auto-mechanics class at a forprofit college to a business degree from Harvard. Even with such a broadly conceived category, we are still talking about just half of all Americans.

Why aren't more people going to college? One obvious answer would be cost, especially the cost of tuition. But the problem isn't just that college is expensive. It is also that going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules- rules that can change.

Eliminating tuition would probably do very little to untangle the sailor's knot of inequalities that make it hard for most Americans to go to college. It would not address the cultural and social barriers imposed by unequal K-12 schooling, which puts a select few students on the college pathway at the expense of millions of others. Neither would it address the changing social milieu of higher education, in which the majority are now nontraditional students. ("Non-traditional" students are classified in different ways depending on who is doing the defining, but the best way to understand the category is in contrast to our assumptions of a traditional college student-young, unfettered, and continuing to college straight from high school.) How and why they go to college can depend as much on things like whether a college is within driving distance or provides one-on-one admissions counseling as it does on the price.

Given all of these factors, free college would likely benefit only an outlying group of students who are currently shut out of higher education because of cost-students with the ability and/or some cultural capital but without wealth. In other words, any conversation about college is a pretty elite one even if the word "free" is right there in the descriptor.

The discussion about free college, outside of the Democratic primary race, has also largely been limited to community colleges, with some exceptions by state. Because I am primarily interested in education as an affirmative justice mechanism, I would like all minority-serving and historically black colleges (HBCUs)-almost all of which qualify as four-year degree institutions-to be included. HBCUs disproportionately serve students facing the intersecting effects of wealth inequality, systematic K-12 disparities, and discrimination. For those reasons, any effort to use higher education as a vehicle for greater equality must include support for HBCUs, allowing them to offer accessible degrees with less (or no) debt.

The Obama administration's free community college plan, expanded in July to include grants that would reduce tuition at HBCUs, is a step in the right direction. Yet this is only the beginning of an educational justice agenda. An educational justice policy must include institutions of higher education but cannot only include institutions of higher education. …

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