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The Problem With Free College

Bernie's borrowed German model requires university offerings to be stripped down from American expectations.
Humboldt University german

Free college sounds terrific. Bernie Sanders has made it a central theme of his campaign. It was once the norm at our best public universities. They still do it in Germany and other European countries. Why not make American great again by eliminating increasingly burdensome tuition and other fees?

There are a number of arguments against free college. Among other concerns, it would subsidize families that can afford to pay and threaten institutional diversity. Perhaps the most serious problem, though, is that Americans don’t actually want the kind of stripped-down higher education that could be provided at public expense.

The European comparison is useful. A Washington Post piece recently praised Germany for allowing students from around the world to enroll at its universities without charge. What German universities offer in exchange was not discussed. More specifically, the piece didn’t mention the services German universities usually don’t provide.  Here is a partial list:

  • Sports.
  • Dorms.
  • Elaborate food and other amenities.
  • Subsidized clubs and extracurricular activities.
  • Academic remediation.
  • Flexibility in majors.

German universities, in other words, are different from what most Americans have in mind when they think of college. Even the most famous are fairly spartan institutions, in which most students live at home or in private housing, with a minimum of academic and personal oversight. Classes are generally large lectures at which attendance is strictly optional. Graduation is based on rigorous exams rather than modular coursework. And students choose their subjects of concentration prior to enrollment, and switching is not easy.

These features are part of the reason German universities are free. Yes, Germans are more willing to support public higher education than Americans. But that’s not because they’re wildly profligate (a notably unGerman characteristic). It’s also because German universities are more limited in their tasks, and therefore cheaper to run, than their American counterparts. By the way, they don’t offer tenure to most of the faculty either.

That doesn’t mean that German universities are a bad deal. On the contrary, they’re excellent for academically prepared, emotionally mature students. But relatively few American students would flourish on the same terms. And they’re certainly not what Americans are encouraged to expect by the higher ed marketing industry.

We probably could have free college at a reasonable cost if more universities were subject to these limitations. But I’m not sure we would like the result. It’s one thing to hope for a free lunch. It’s another to expect to be served the whole menu.

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.