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Senior Correspondent

I want to spend a second week’s essay on the question of “free college,” as it is at least possible that someone might not have been satisfied by the answer I gave last week. To recap, I suggested that the solution to the “student loan crisis” was to upgrade the quality of American free primary and secondary education to its level in, say, 1900, when my grandmother was teaching school in Salida, Colorado, and when a high school diploma was a significant credential.

Deep down everyone knows that there is not really such a thing as a free lunch, just a lunch that somebody else has paid for. Certainly Senator Sanders knows that. When he talks about “free tuition,” he really means tuition that has been paid, through the federal government, by people who buy and sell stocks and by “millionaires and billionaires” generally.  Senator Sanders’s suggestion has initiated a useful conversation, rather sloganish for the moment, but full of potential. What it has not done is led to the public recognition of a crucial fact about American higher education in its present imperfect and unreformed state. That is that many of America’s leading liberal arts colleges and, without exception, all of its most famous private universities, are already complex charitable institutions. Over the past century and more they have affected a dramatic redistribution of wealth, and an alchemical transformation of financial to social capital.

I know. It’s a little awkward, not to say hypocritical, for me, personally, to argue against “free college” seeing as I had nine years of it. Four years of undergraduate college were paid for by George F. Baker, an obscenely wealthy banker who died before I was born. Then I had three years at Oxford thanks to Cecil Rhodes, a much reviled British imperialist. I don’t actually know who, specifically, paid for my doctoral education. The fellowships bore the names of famous scholars in whose memory or honor the donations had been made. What came as a perceived gift rather than as a perceived entitlement animated in me an almost joyous sense of responsibility to repay as best I could in such coin as an education creates.

There are not too many large aspects of American life which the rest of the world still acknowledges to be the best to be had. Our political institutions and personalities are not much to brag about. The shared physical infrastructure vital to a continental country is mediocre at best. We can hardly boast of our court system, our penology, our primary education, or our mass transportation. But one thing the world still rightly admires is American higher education. Its greatest strength is its diversity, if that word has not yet been misused into meaninglessness. There is every kind of college and university you can think of, including incidentally a few free ones. Before one buys into a radical revision of educational financing, it might be a good idea to try to clarify some fundamental educational goals — beyond the implicit desirability of college degrees for all.

The Sanders plan would make public institutions tuition free. “In fact”, says his website, “it’s what many of our colleges and universities used to do. The University of California system offered free tuition at its schools until the 1980s. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year public university was just $243 and many of the best colleges — including the City University of New York — did not charge any tuition at all. The Sanders plan would make tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout the country.” This statement has some accuracies, but it doesn’t take into account the dramatic rise in real educational costs of the last half century and the huge growth in the number of potential students. That a proposed system founded in a supposed universal right could surpass the social achievements of our erratic meritocracy — even if the astronomical amount of money needed were as readily gathered into a strong box as written into the plank of a political platform — is far from obvious.

There is not a major university in this country that is not already entangled in ambiguous financial relationships with the Federal government, principally though not exclusively in the realm of Big Science. I say “ambiguous” because such relationships have both good and bad outcomes. On the one hand they enable a level and ambition of research that would otherwise be impossible. On the other they have the potential to distort institutional mission, and there always follows in their wake a distracting level of bureaucratic red tape. Governmental over-regulation is not a figment of the tortured Republican imagination but an inevitable reality of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. The more that college becomes “free” in Bernie Sanders’s sense — meaning the more the intermediary bursar of actual educational costs is a federal bureau — the clunkier, more intellectually constipated will be the operations of our institutions of higher learning.

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