Free Tuition and Forgiving Student Debt will Not Save Radical College Faculty

Americans are keen supporters of higher education and Washington has traditionally generously concurred. But, in the 2020 presidential Democratic primary, several prominent potential nominees have endorsed once-unimaginable levels of government aid for college students. Elizabeth Warren, for example, recently announced that if elected she would spend $1.5 trillion (raised by higher taxes on the very rich) to eliminate up to $50,000 in student loan debt for those in household with incomes below $100,000 with smaller cancellations for households earning less than $250,000.  Her plan would also abolish tuition at all public colleges while offering government grants for non-tuition expenses. Meanwhile, a $50 billion fund would help financially struggling historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

Some 42 million Americans would benefit, especially 75% of those with federal government-funded college debt. Washington would also encourage non-government debtholders to further eliminate student debt. What’s more, her plan would require an “annual equity audit” to ensure that low-income and students of color were proportionately represented in both admission and graduation. 

Warren’s plan ostensibly helps poorer students and minorities climb up the economic ladder into well-paying middle-class jobs, but left unsaid is that college professors and administrators would appear to be even greater beneficiaries. After all, cancelling student debt and free tuition at public colleges may help millions of American youngsters obtain diplomas and be debt-free, but the parchment hardly guarantees a good job. By contrast, opening the floodgates to BA seekers via government subsidies will, it would seem, create yet more academic jobs.

Alas, matters are more complicated and though Warren’s plan (and others like it) is unlikely to come into being, it is worthwhile to ask if such huge subsidies have any merit. As we shall see, over and above possibly squandering the $1.5 trillion, her plan may produce the opposite of what it intends, namely it will bring widespread unemployment among many college professors and administrators.  As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, and this certainly applies to academics.

What Warren, Sanders and other progressives offer is politically predictable: college professors and administrations are among the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, and going one step further, they have long labored to indoctrinate American youngsters to embrace the hyper-expansive government ideology dominating today’s Democratic Party. On its face, free tuition to boost enrollments is a wonderful quid pro quo, a generous “Thank You” from Congress to the professorate.     

Moreover, this payback (if it ever came to pass) would be arriving in the nick of time. Yes, many tenured faculty, particularly at elite schools, enjoy job security, but contrary to popular stereotypes, being a college professor or administrator is no longer the safe, guaranteed-for-life cushy job it once was.  

For one, the demographic outlook for college enrollment looks grim as the US birthrate falls. According to one study, between 2020 and 2029 overall college enrollment will fall some 15% and continue to decline thereafter. To be sure, places at prestige schools will still be in high demand, but for the majority of schools, the number of applicants will decline. In fact, these contractions are already occurring as dozens of colleges, particularly small liberal arts schools, have recently closed their doors while many more are substantially downsizing (for recent closures, see here). Ex-college professors and deans by the carload are now looking for jobs, and downsizing is now even occurring at state schools that have access to state tax revenue. Wisconsin, a state notable for its commitment to top-level public education recently consolidated 13 two-year colleges into seven four-year colleges. A similar spate of college consolidations has occurred in Georgia, Connecticut and Alabama.  And more carnage is to come. A 2016 report from the consulting firm of Ernst & Young found that some 800 colleges (nearly half of all private colleges) are at risk for insolvency due to under-sized enrollments and over-reliance on tuition.

Moreover, even if schools can sustain enrollments in the face of rising tuition, students themselves are shifting away from the social sciences and humanities, departments notorious for leftish indoctrination, and few schools, especially those in financial trouble,  can afford to keep professors when students fail to sign up for their classes. Since the financial crisis of 2008, for example, the number of history and English majors has fallen by nearly half. Nor has the creation of trendy majors such as Women’s Studies or Gender Studies enticed youngsters to the campus. Not surprisingly, students have gravitated toward more practical fields in health and computers where they can also skip time-wasting lectures on class, race and gender.

Now the key question: can these free college tuition schemes boast overall college enrollments and thus provide the lifeboat that will rescue thousands of soon to be unemployed academics? The answer is “no,” and, if anything, free college will only exacerbate the cutting of traditional faculty positions.  

Yes, public schools might expand enrollments to exploit this new-found government largess, but they will not hire faculty refugees from shuttered private schools. Why would a state school want to employ a middle-aged tenured professor of psychology from a defunct private liberal arts college when it could hire a far cheaper freshly-minted Ph.D. or, better yet, a dirt-cheap part-time adjunct to teach the same courses? (A recent academic job listing site advertises some 11,819 jobs for adjuncts, so it is clear just how cash-strapped colleges plan to stay afloat financially). The need to admit poor students who will require scholarships plus the extra costs needed to graduate ill-prepared minority students will further pressure schools to skimp on traditional full-time faculty. It also seems unlikely that Washington would volunteer to pay sky-high list price tuition, a situation comparable to how the federal government currently bargains down costly Medicare and Medicaid bills from hospitals and doctors.

There is some ironic justice here: for decades countless professors used their classroom as a bully pulpit to bash capitalism as the Evil of Evils. The free market is now striking back -- students just don’t want to pay $50,000 or more and waste years of their lives to hear PC tripe. Even if some liberal arts-centered schools survive, survival may require adjustments hardly welcomed by their faculty -- cutting tenure positions in the low-enrollment humanities and social studies (and this would include trendy “grievance studies” majors), relying more on dirt cheap on-line instruction, or when the Grim Reaper is at the doorstep, admitting any warm body that can pay the tuition or recruiting rich foreigners just needing a student visa.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other champions of this no tuition, no debt rescue know that American colleges are in trouble (Sanders’s wife, Jane, was president of the now-defunct Burlington College),  and certainly want to help one of their most loyal constituencies, but their plan, assuming that they can be elected president and then somehow get it passed by Congress, is doomed to fail if not make matters worse. Yet one more example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Graphic credit: www.bluefield.edu

Americans are keen supporters of higher education and Washington has traditionally generously concurred. But, in the 2020 presidential Democratic primary, several prominent potential nominees have endorsed once-unimaginable levels of government aid for college students. Elizabeth Warren, for example, recently announced that if elected she would spend $1.5 trillion (raised by higher taxes on the very rich) to eliminate up to $50,000 in student loan debt for those in household with incomes below $100,000 with smaller cancellations for households earning less than $250,000.  Her plan would also abolish tuition at all public colleges while offering government grants for non-tuition expenses. Meanwhile, a $50 billion fund would help financially struggling historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

Some 42 million Americans would benefit, especially 75% of those with federal government-funded college debt. Washington would also encourage non-government debtholders to further eliminate student debt. What’s more, her plan would require an “annual equity audit” to ensure that low-income and students of color were proportionately represented in both admission and graduation. 

Warren’s plan ostensibly helps poorer students and minorities climb up the economic ladder into well-paying middle-class jobs, but left unsaid is that college professors and administrators would appear to be even greater beneficiaries. After all, cancelling student debt and free tuition at public colleges may help millions of American youngsters obtain diplomas and be debt-free, but the parchment hardly guarantees a good job. By contrast, opening the floodgates to BA seekers via government subsidies will, it would seem, create yet more academic jobs.

Alas, matters are more complicated and though Warren’s plan (and others like it) is unlikely to come into being, it is worthwhile to ask if such huge subsidies have any merit. As we shall see, over and above possibly squandering the $1.5 trillion, her plan may produce the opposite of what it intends, namely it will bring widespread unemployment among many college professors and administrators.  As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, and this certainly applies to academics.

What Warren, Sanders and other progressives offer is politically predictable: college professors and administrations are among the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, and going one step further, they have long labored to indoctrinate American youngsters to embrace the hyper-expansive government ideology dominating today’s Democratic Party. On its face, free tuition to boost enrollments is a wonderful quid pro quo, a generous “Thank You” from Congress to the professorate.     

Moreover, this payback (if it ever came to pass) would be arriving in the nick of time. Yes, many tenured faculty, particularly at elite schools, enjoy job security, but contrary to popular stereotypes, being a college professor or administrator is no longer the safe, guaranteed-for-life cushy job it once was.  

For one, the demographic outlook for college enrollment looks grim as the US birthrate falls. According to one study, between 2020 and 2029 overall college enrollment will fall some 15% and continue to decline thereafter. To be sure, places at prestige schools will still be in high demand, but for the majority of schools, the number of applicants will decline. In fact, these contractions are already occurring as dozens of colleges, particularly small liberal arts schools, have recently closed their doors while many more are substantially downsizing (for recent closures, see here). Ex-college professors and deans by the carload are now looking for jobs, and downsizing is now even occurring at state schools that have access to state tax revenue. Wisconsin, a state notable for its commitment to top-level public education recently consolidated 13 two-year colleges into seven four-year colleges. A similar spate of college consolidations has occurred in Georgia, Connecticut and Alabama.  And more carnage is to come. A 2016 report from the consulting firm of Ernst & Young found that some 800 colleges (nearly half of all private colleges) are at risk for insolvency due to under-sized enrollments and over-reliance on tuition.

Moreover, even if schools can sustain enrollments in the face of rising tuition, students themselves are shifting away from the social sciences and humanities, departments notorious for leftish indoctrination, and few schools, especially those in financial trouble,  can afford to keep professors when students fail to sign up for their classes. Since the financial crisis of 2008, for example, the number of history and English majors has fallen by nearly half. Nor has the creation of trendy majors such as Women’s Studies or Gender Studies enticed youngsters to the campus. Not surprisingly, students have gravitated toward more practical fields in health and computers where they can also skip time-wasting lectures on class, race and gender.

Now the key question: can these free college tuition schemes boast overall college enrollments and thus provide the lifeboat that will rescue thousands of soon to be unemployed academics? The answer is “no,” and, if anything, free college will only exacerbate the cutting of traditional faculty positions.  

Yes, public schools might expand enrollments to exploit this new-found government largess, but they will not hire faculty refugees from shuttered private schools. Why would a state school want to employ a middle-aged tenured professor of psychology from a defunct private liberal arts college when it could hire a far cheaper freshly-minted Ph.D. or, better yet, a dirt-cheap part-time adjunct to teach the same courses? (A recent academic job listing site advertises some 11,819 jobs for adjuncts, so it is clear just how cash-strapped colleges plan to stay afloat financially). The need to admit poor students who will require scholarships plus the extra costs needed to graduate ill-prepared minority students will further pressure schools to skimp on traditional full-time faculty. It also seems unlikely that Washington would volunteer to pay sky-high list price tuition, a situation comparable to how the federal government currently bargains down costly Medicare and Medicaid bills from hospitals and doctors.

There is some ironic justice here: for decades countless professors used their classroom as a bully pulpit to bash capitalism as the Evil of Evils. The free market is now striking back -- students just don’t want to pay $50,000 or more and waste years of their lives to hear PC tripe. Even if some liberal arts-centered schools survive, survival may require adjustments hardly welcomed by their faculty -- cutting tenure positions in the low-enrollment humanities and social studies (and this would include trendy “grievance studies” majors), relying more on dirt cheap on-line instruction, or when the Grim Reaper is at the doorstep, admitting any warm body that can pay the tuition or recruiting rich foreigners just needing a student visa.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other champions of this no tuition, no debt rescue know that American colleges are in trouble (Sanders’s wife, Jane, was president of the now-defunct Burlington College),  and certainly want to help one of their most loyal constituencies, but their plan, assuming that they can be elected president and then somehow get it passed by Congress, is doomed to fail if not make matters worse. Yet one more example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Graphic credit: www.bluefield.edu