The free college movement began with a trickle. A mention here or there, trumpeted by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Occupy Wall Streeters and later taken up by Black Lives Matter (though it now seems to have been removed from their official platform). But that trickle turned into a tsunami as the 2020 Democratic primary dominated what seemed to be the longest news cycle in history.
Practically every candidate glommed onto the movement to make college free, each with their own version of what “free” really meant. When Democrats took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in January 2021, it seemed that a federal free college regime was imminent — much to the chagrin of people like me who prefer a market-based approach and to the joy of those on the left.
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Fast forward to today and it seems that the inevitability of federal free college was just a mirage. As it disappears, advocates will likely be taking the first back to where it began and where it belongs; the states.
Divisions within the Congressional Democrats are deeper than most anticipated and will likely result, once all is said and done, in much of the progressive agenda being left on the cutting room floor. The ambitious and shockingly expensive reconciliation bill — made up an already abridged version of the Democrats’ wish list — seems dead in the water, as the moderate and progressive wings of the party are divided over both the top line cost and the implied priorities.
Despite its almost inevitable defeat at the federal level, the movement for free college is not dead. Instead, it’s simply kicked back to where it belongs: the states. Before free college became a national movement, it was an issue taken up by the states themselves. They were prompted in part by the Obama era initiative dubbed America’s College Promise, which aimed to make community colleges free across the nation.
The free college debate belongs in the states for a simple reason — public colleges and universities are administered by the states, not the federal government. So if a state chooses to raise its level of funding for higher education to an extent that it makes tuition free, they don’t need to jump through any political hoops to get there. In contrast, a federal free college regime would have required a complex partnership between states and the feds which would ultimately lead to unfairness, distorted incentives for states to continue to spend on higher education or both.
Furthermore, experimenting with free college in the states allows us to benefit from exploration of the idea in our “laboratories of democracy.” Advocates for free college argue that the message of “free” is so powerful that the benefits to equity and access to disadvantaged students would outweigh the enormous efficiency loss associated with effectively socializing the higher education sector. It is hard imagine that their claims are true, but New York or California, or any other state for that matter, would be welcome to try and prove it.
The division within the Democratic Party that has brought many of the progressive dreams of the primary, including free college, to a screeching halt were a surprise to free marketers, and perhaps a surprise even to those dreaming those progressive dreams. Just as Democrats reveled in the inability of Congressional Republicans to dismantle Obamacare during the Trump administration, Republicans can now enjoy their moment of schadenfreude.
Much has been said about the increasing polarization in this nation, but less has been said about increasing polarization of ideology within our parties. That may be bad for “getting things done,” but it’s not such a bad thing for our nation. We should demand thoughtful debate on the issues that affect us all— even if it slows the pace of change in our political and social systems.
Elizabeth “Beth” Akers is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on the economics of higher education.