What do you mean, “free” college?

When I was in college at a midwestern university famous for its right-wing economists, the coffee shop in my dorm was called T.A.N.S.T.A.F.L., which stood for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” It was a quotation from Milton Friedman, who I suppose used it to mean that someone–the owners of capital–are the ones paying for what workers, mothers of dependent children, Chilean miners, or whomever are merely taking, as if it were “free.”

Of course, there isn’t any such thing as a free lunch, but it’s not because someone else is paying for it. It’s because someone is working for it. But that’s not what Friedman meant, and it’s not what critics of tuition-free college mean when they dismiss “free college” as a pipe dream. The derisive use of “free” in the TANSTAFL libertarian sense has experienced a revival, especially around the issue of tuition-free, publicly-funded higher education, or to its critics, “free college.”

As in the case of the Friedman aphorism, “free college” is often invoked with an air of world-weary condescension, as if the adult speaker is patiently explaining to someone else’s child why, although they really, really wish he could, he simply cannot have a pony.

Sara Goldrick-Rab shared this excellent example on Twitter.

To which she replied:

Her comment points out the arbitrariness of Sandy Baum’s insistence that publicly-funded college is among all public services singularly impossible and unthinkable. It also points out the non-sequitur of the whole argument–no one ever said “free” high school or playgrounds were free, either. My sense is that this kind of dismissal is often a combination of class prejudice, politics, and narrow-mindedness. It comes out of a conviction that college should remain an elite preserve, with a sticker price to ensure it, plus an obliviousness to the normalcy, within recent memory, of tuition-free (or nearly so) college in the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

Most critics of Bernie Sanders’ tuition-free public college program were also just opportunistic political supporters of his rival in the Democratic primaries; there’s no need to review the terrible arguments that subsidized SUNY tuition would be a giveaway to Tiffany Trump. (She should have to buy a ticket to Central Park, though.)

Here is another example, a paywalled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that explains “How Clinton’s ‘Free College’ Could Cause a Cascade of Problems” (a veritable cascade! I bet you haven’t even thought about all the problems.) Reason is, of course, opposed to it, arguing in the face of common sense and all evidence that “government subsidies have hidden the price of college and broken the market forces that would naturally keep tuition costs down.”

An op-ed writer in the Delaware News-Journal does a point-by-point debunking of what he calls the “myths of free college,” tipping his hand by quoting such scholars as William Bennett and Kevin Carey without ever addressing the core issues that the Sanders campaign first raised–federal and private profiteering on student loan debt and the decline of federal and state aid for education.

“Free college” is a moralistic ruse, in other words, used to smuggle in a market logic where it has no place without addressing the core question of exploitative, exorbitant college costs. It treats education like anything else you’d buy in a store, and scolds those who feel otherwise by pretending they want to get something without working for it. There ain’t so such thing as a free lunch, of course: students and the public have amply paid for it already. They’re just not eating.

Luckily, most Americans seem to understand this: a recent survey shows that two-thirds (and one-third of registered Republicans) think “tuition at public colleges and universities should be free for anyone who wants to attend.”






4 thoughts on “What do you mean, “free” college?”

  1. The current arguments/hand-wringing over the question of “free college” have inspired me to quote Ernst Lohoff at length:

    “The fundamental premises of what now passes as social criticism also bear a decisive share of the responsibility for this intolerable situation. Drawing on what are essentially the nostalgic reminiscences of Fordist capitalism under the protection of the welfare state, the opponents of market radicalism assume as self-evident what also holds as self-evident for the market radicals: social reproduction can only ever be the waste product of successful valorization on all levels of society and of the accumulation of monetary wealth. And sharing just as much in the dominant market-radical consensus, market radicalism’s opponents also treat monetary wealth and material wealth as coextensive. But whoever operates with these axioms performs, against his own intention, a premature act of obedience to the deadly logic of commodity society. Neo-Keynesian arguments stubbornly repeat this, as if only the proof that capitalist growth could be attained in some other manner, with many fewer victims, could legitimate opposition to market-radical rampages. By supposing that the problem of “but where are we going to find the money?” can in fact be solved by the application of its concepts, neo-Keynesianism has already allowed itself to be knocked out of the ring by market radicalism, whose arguments it has already conceded as the criterion of all criteria, thus also acknowledging the overall primacy of the logic of money and profit. It is thus always already on the road to defeat. In the struggle between what are essentially competing hallucinatory systems, the market radicals, in keeping both feet planted on the ground of this logic, will always hold the winning cards…

    …Unlearning the four basic arithmetic operations out of respect for the sacred cow of money is not — what a surprise — the starting point of emancipatory thought, nor is fantasizing that one is the greater expert at manning the control panel of capitalism’s total business operations. When confronted with the paradigm of financial feasibility (“but where are we going to find the money?”) as the criterion of all criteria, emancipatory thinking begins by hitting the delete key. That social security and the general preservation of the preconditions of social reproduction itself should have ceased to be affordable can only become an argument against, say, medical care and public education in the lunatic world of market radicalism. What can be said of the notion that public infrastructure and the life prospects of millions of people must be sacrificed for the sake of a desperate attempt to balance state budgets? Only that it is madness, deserving only aggressive and purposeful incomprehension. Submitting such basic social needs to monetary calculation is tantamount to social suicide and speaks only to the need to uproot the social psychosis embedded in such grotesque procedures.”

    Which is only to say, as cute as the Twitter burn cited above might be, the fact remains that publicly-funded, appropriate, (compulsory) public education for k-12 only become thus when the demand for labor power was such that this “cost” could be justified. Accepting that the current demand for a well-trained, subservient domestic workforce is well below what it was even thirty years ago (to say nothing of the historical period that covers the transition from mass child labor to mass schooling), it is more likely that, sticking to the question of the calculation of costs, we are more likely see the continued de-funding of k-12 than we are to see the expansion of funding for university tuition. We better not hesitate to insist that it be FREE, not “paid for.” It is, after all, not our problem to concern ourselves with what is economically feasible, nor should we be bothered with questions of how expanding the provision of education may or may not be a “worthy investment,” or if free college tuition might improve the long-term growth prospects of our terminally ill social system. Because it’s not, and it won’t.



  2. Great post. It’s also not realistic to allow people to use the national highway system for free, unless one considers that the purpose of a tax system is to pay for public goods.


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