I paid exactly zero dollars for my college degree. And then I went ahead and paid exactly nothing for my post-degree studies too. I was not a particularly gifted student, and no athlete, so I had no scholarships. My parents were upper-middle-class suburbanites, so I got no financial aid. And yet I went to the 56th best university in the world, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
How? I had one very big thing going for me: I came of age at a moment when the country I lived in, Australia, decided that tertiary education should be completely free for anybody who could get in.
The Prime Minister whose idea this was later got fired, which may explain why President Barack Obama has left his push for free college until the 11th hour of his term. Or why Bernie Sanders champions this idea on the campaign trail, but Hillary Clinton is less gung-ho.
Australian universities aren’t free anymore. Students can, however, get a loan that they pay back once their salary reaches a certain income threshold. Nevertheless, as a historical anomaly, I’m here to report on what going to college for a few hundred dollars a year in student fees does to impressionable young scholars:
1. It makes them frivolous. Many people fear that not having to pay for college will make students take college less seriously. This is absolutely true. My fellow students and I did not take college very seriously. We just did exactly what we wanted to do. We joined clubs and took on activities that would never have occurred to students who were dedicated to their studies. I took up softball, ran for student government, joined the student revue, wrote for the student newspaper, tried my hand at radio, took classes in middle English and old Norse. And I passed all my courses, as did the vast majority of my friends. Free college is still college. You feel like a loser if you fail. Plus all of those, except perhaps the Norse, proved useful to me later.
2. It makes them less choosy. The decision on whether to go to university at all was also less considered. My parents weren’t college graduates, but they expected their four kids to be. It was free. We had nothing better to do. So we went. There were no tours, no counselors, no essays and recommendation letters. Indeed, there were almost no private colleges, since it’s impossible to compete with free. There was no long, fraught period of deciding which college was right. You just went wherever you got in. Having college as a fallback position may draw in a bunch of kids who can’t manage the academics. But it will also draw in a bunch of kids who can manage the academics, but not the money. This is only a good thing if you want a more educated populace.
3. It makes them less independent. Most Australian students, even now that there are fees, don’t move across the country to study; they learn locally. They often live at home with their parents, at least initially and then move closer to campus. There are some dorms, and frat-like behavior at them is common. But for most teenagers, the on-ramp to college is not as steep. Students don’t move from a structured school and home environment straight to a whole new town. It’s just not that big a change. That means less freedom, but a softer landing when things go wrong.
4. It makes them less loyal. Spending not as much time on campus means the students’ traditions are somewhat different. Instead of living in a college bubble, people keep up with their old friends. College is just part of their lives, not their whole existence. It’s also true there’s not as much school spirit, either at the colleges, for sports games or among the alumni groups. No cheerleaders. No mascots. I’ve been to exactly one college reunion event, and that’s because I was asked to speak. College is just one part of their lives.
5. It makes them less money conscious. I worked a series of hysterically bad jobs while at college: chocolate shop, cheese shop, formal wear rental chain, jewelry chain and pavlova factory. When your living expenses are low and you’re not racking up debt, you tend to quit when jobs feel too tough. The glass-half-full way of saying that is that you can also try a lot of stuff. And, crucially for me, you can leave your job when conscience prevents you from letting one more clueless groom rent a brown wedding tuxedo.
6. It makes them take a different path after college. One of the brightest students in my year went to Papua New Guinea to work on environmental issues. Others started a clothing business. Another moved to India to teach literacy skills in New Delhi. Still others went on to do Masters and PhDs or became researchers or ministers. And plenty of them just got jobs in their chosen fields, or fooled around until they found a field that looked choosable. They may have taken college less seriously that their American counterparts, but they could be more adventurous afterwards.
Nobody panicked. Nobody had any money, but nobody needed much, so those early stakes were low. Have you ever wondered why Australians are always so cheerful? And why they travel so much? Possibly it’s because they do not have tens of thousands of dollars of college debt bearing down on their credit rating—and because beer tastes pretty good everywhere.
P.S. There is one way in which a free university hampers you: it becomes almost impossible to get your head around the idea that your child will one day need something like $50,000 a year if he or she wants to go to college like you did. So you don’t save. Sorry, kid. Ever thought of going to school in Australia?
Read next: Everything You Need to Know About Getting and Paying for a Great College Education
Belinda Luscombe, an editor-at-large of TIME, writes about the science, economy and insanity of relationships—those conducted at home, work or in cyberspace. She’s also the editor of the Time for Parents newsletter and was formerly the editor of the magazine’s Culture section.
Aaron Bady recently did a piece calling for a return to the vision of free public higher education, embracing the slogan that if we're charging these high tuition fees then these "public" institutions aren't really public at all.
I see three big problems with this idea.
The first big problem is the one Matt Bruenig highlights in an excellent and detailed post. Increasing the level of subsidy available to four-year degree-granting institutions would be a wildly regressive step. The student population at such institutions is disproportionately affluent, and was disproportionately affluent back when college tuition was cheaper. Recent increases in college tuition have largely shielded the small number of students from poor families. Both today and back in "the good old days" the overwhelmingly barrier that kids with poor parents face to attending four-year colleges isn't tuition, but low college admissions test scores. We can debate the origins of the test score gap, but it is what it is. Most poor kids can't get into a four-year college, and those who can get a pretty good financial deal.
The second big problem, however, is that I think we should get more cynical than Bruenig does. If the level of subsidy were increased enough to eliminate tuition, the faculty and administrators of public universities would still thirst for more money. A logical place to raise the money would be—tuition. After all, a college degree is a valuable commodity. And the kids in college are mostly from families with above-average incomes. Having eliminated tuition, the tuition would simply come back. In exchange, you'd get more tenure-track faculty, more administrators, more weird perks for university presidents, nicer facilities, etc.
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The third and most fundamental problem is simply that it's hardly as if the university sector is the only branch of education that might plausibly want more money. My ranking, in order of educational institutions to spend money on, would go like this:
- Community colleges.
- High-poverty elementary schools.
- High-poverty high schools.
- Four-year colleges.
And here's the thing. I think that ranking is probably pretty uncontroversial even among the sort of liberals who also want to increase subsidies to four-year colleges. You want to direct funds at under-resourced institutions, and to areas where you get a high bang for your buck. You can call this a "false choice" if you like, but the fact is that making high-quality preschool broadly available will be expensive. Getting community colleges up to snuff will be expensive. Addressing funding disparities in the K-12 system will be expensive. The case for reallocating funds away from four-year colleges and toward more pressing educational needs is reasonably strong. At a minimum, given that four-year colleges already spend a lot of money we should ask them to try to do more with what they have while directing new funds at other priorities.
But I think we should loop this back around to where we started. I agree with Bady that there's an important sense in which the best-known public institutions of higher education aren't public. But it isn't that they aren't free. National Parks aren't free. But they're still public institutions. Because they're open to the public. Community colleges are also open to the public. But schools that only let you in if you have high SAT scores—whoever owns them and whatever they charge—aren't public in this sense. And in a world where the cost of financing health care and retirement for an aging society is pressuring public budgets, I'd make them stand behind other more broadly public forms of education for money.