Returning to our old hobby horse of higher education, I recommend that you read this excerpt in The Chronicle of Higher Education from Robert Samuels’ latest book, Why Public Higher Education Should be Free: How to Decrease Cost and Increase Quality at American Universities (Rutgers UP, 2013). I haven’t read the full book yet, but I plan to soon. Bob is someone I worked with, and I respect his opinions on how to make higher education better and a better deal for students, particularly those who don’t swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. Although I am not sure that making public colleges entirely free is the best idea, I do think we could streamline the way public money ends up getting spent on education to bring costs down to reasonable levels (i.e., take the ridiculous and predatory loan system out of it). Any move toward tuitionless higher ed would have to come with really stringent guidelines about who schools could let in and what students would have to do to stay enrolled, as simply providing universities a per-pupil payment seems like an invitation for administrators hungry to replicate themselves to let in completely unprepared kids just for the government cash they represent, only to dump them in ever-expanding classes taught by bedraggled adjuncts and grad students. Honestly, that wouldn’t be good for anyone, save the new Vice Deans of Provostial Studies.
Now, I’d wager this potential problem of free public colleges being overwhelmed by students who aren’t prepared could be solved by radically reforming K-12 education. If we actually focus on making a K-12 education system that hones essential critical thinking, language, writing, quantitative, technological, cultural, and interpersonal skills, we might end up with a population that is prepared at 18 to either enter a tech-heavy workforce (everything from Silicon Valley to auto repair) or go to college. This will require more, not less, personal attention given to each student, active engagement by parents in the lives of their kids and local schools, the toppling of the “testing” and AP regimes, the firing of teachers who (after being given multiple chances and the tools to succeed) have proven not up to the task of educating, and the end of schools being run by administrators rather than the best teachers. No small task, I know, but so many of our problems in higher ed are the result of our largely failed K-12 system. So let’s fix it before we’re a nation of people with 4.4 GPAs who can’t write a coherent sentence in English, Spanish, French, or any other language.