For Colleges, \’Free\’ is about much more than money



On Astor Place in Lower Manhattan, you can stand on a street corner and see, for higher education, the power and fragility of the word \”free.\”

To the right stands the Cooper Union Foundation Building, a steel-re­inforced Italianate brownstone that has, since 1859, been home to Peter Cooper’s vision of a college, \”open and free to all,\” providing a world-class education in architecture, engineering, and the arts. For over a century, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art has inspired fierce loyalty in graduates who excelled because of, not in spite of, the university’s egalitarian spirit and lean, focused approach to learning.

To the left is 41 Cooper Square, a curving new modernist structure reportedly built with the help of a $175-million loan that the university took out while hoping to land a naming-rights gift that never arrived.

To cover the loan payments and advance the Cooper board’s vague ambitions to—honestly, I can’t even type these words without getting bored—build what the college’s president is quoted as calling a \”global brand,\” the university will increase tuition this fall from $0 to as much as $20,000 per year for some students. Cooper Union is free no more.

Students and alumni have protested and offered a comprehensive alternative plan, to no avail. Their argument that \”free\” is not just a financial-aid policy but an essential characteristic of the college has fallen on deaf ears. Which raises the question of how to think about free, and higher learning, in a time when all forces seem aligned to make college as far from free as it can be.

American universities have been not-free long enough that the concept has become alien, like something from an old science-fiction utopia. Higher education is still virtually free in parts of Europe, of course, as a Finnish graduate student reminded me while observing that, if you include government stipends for rent and living expenses, tuition there is effectively a negative number.

This has consequences, not all benign. The Finn had friends who, she believed, were ambling through their 20s without urgency or ambition, content to be paid to learn. I was reminded of an Italian sommelier I met on vacation who mentioned in passing her free law-school education. The law bored her by the end of it, so she skipped the bar and moved to Tuscany instead.

But the flip side of insufficient urgency is far too much, in the form of payments on backbreaking loans. Americans pay more for higher education than citizens of comparable nations, with no discernible extra benefits in return.

\”Free\” in the United States has been historically linked with \”open access,\” not in the Cooper Union sense of \”not discriminating against women and ethnic and racial minorities\” but by establishing few if any academic standards for admission. Making college attendance a no-stakes affair—pay nothing, come as you are—may discourage the kind of sustained focus and engagement with academic institutions that tend to characterize successful students.

The best balance is probably a nontrivial but broadly affordable tuition charge that a median-income family can pay out of pocket, or a student can afford by working half-time or less during school. Many community colleges still offer this deal, but it is rapidly disappearing from four-year institutions. The present generation of undergraduates has become dangerously accustomed to the idea that all universities are expensive, public institutions only somewhat less so than private.

The problem is that \”modest and affordable\” is a fundamentally unstable state for a university’s prices to occupy. If everyone understands that students pay nothing, the institution behaves in a certain way. Ambitions and expenses are held in check by annual revenues, whether from endowment earnings or public appropriations, that are unlikely to grow drastically over time. The college understands itself as an institution with civic purposes and obligations. It doesn’t dream of global branding, because it has more important things to do.

If, on the other hand, tuition is more than nothing, the college understands itself differently. It is selling a service in a market. And once you start down that road, the questions of \”How much more could we charge in this market?\” and \”How fast can we get from here to there?\” are unavoidable. Barriers of regulatory policy and public shaming can be erected to slow the acceleration toward full market pricing, but they are delaying actions that will not change the underlying trajectory of the institution.

Inevitably, the broader culture adjusts to accommodate this way of understanding society’s obligations to its students. College becomes, as many others have observed, a private good offered by private institutions. Lawmakers who cut higher-education appropriations suffer no electoral consequences, and are emboldened to cut again.

It is almost impossible to stuff the animal spirits of market ambition back in the bottle, once released. This is why those who believe in Cooper Union’s historic identity have fought so hard to keep the founder’s original vision from being shattered beyond repair.

As Kevin Slavin, an alumnus and a trustee, wrote online, \”I didn’t go because it was free for me. I chose Cooper Union because it was free for everyone. And anyone who actually experienced that knows that the only way to jeopardize the quality of the education there is to charge for it. … ‘Free’ affects far more than a fiscal bottom line. It affects the intentions, behavior, ambition, and performance of everyone in the system.\”

And once the college economic model depends on someone paying tuition upfront, it’s difficult to create mechanisms that retroactively bring prices back down toward free. This is why higher-education finance is becoming what has been called a \”kludgeocracy\” of tax credits, interest-rate subsidies, and loan-forgiveness schemes.

It’s also why programs that purport to offer a \”free\” college education, like the recently announced partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University, are inevitably far from the Cooper tuition-free ideal. (Participants will have to pay substantial tuition upfront and will be fully reimbursed only if they are juniors or seniors, accumulate 21 credits at ASU Online, and are still employed at Starbucks 20 hours per week.)

There is little chance of replacing all the college revenues now flowing from tuition with new public funds. Rearranging existing public subsidies to make some colleges free at the expense of others is a zero-sum game.

So the best chance to reinvigorate the fading ideal of free college education is to find a new generation of Peter Coopers, people willing to invest their fortunes in colleges that combine a sharp, bounded educational focus with a commitment to the public good. Advancements in information technology mean that such colleges won’t need huge campuses full of $165-million-plus buildings to be excellent. A single structure, built in the right place by the right people, will once again be enough to create an educational institution in which the founder’s spirit can be sustained for generations beyond his passing.

Author Bio: Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.