Free College: Progressive, Revolutionary, and Wildly Impossible

With the election right around the corner, I have been taking the time to actually inform myself on each candidate’s positions on a deeper level than headlines and click bait statements. Biden has a particularly interesting plan for education: free college for students coming from a household that makes less than $125,000 a year. Is this genius? Stupid? Revolutionary? Naive?

What better person to offer insight into Biden’s plan than my dad, an accomplished scholar who has worked in academia for his entire life. Without further ado, let’s welcome Lew Askegaard to The Frugal Foodies.

American presidential elections are tests of our belief in Santa Claus. You’ve got to believe to take campaign promises seriously.

I am Lew of the same last name as the Frugal Foodie herself, Katie. My punishment for exchanging political emails with my daughter is being assigned this guest blog. I get compensated the way all parents get compensated: Katie heaps undying gratitude on me.

I’ve been in education all my life, teaching elementary and secondary, principaling, and then working as a number cruncher, administrator, and prof in a college for 35 years. I don’t know BlogWorld very well, but I imagine if readers thought I had a political bias, I’d instantly lose half of you.  So I will try hard to hide my true views.

Gentleman Joe Biden (the best man for the job) is still a professional politician.

When it comes to promising goodies to all the good little voters, even Devious Don struggles to keep up. Diamond Don, the Deficit King is the man who flew to the aid of the upper 1%, racking up a TRILLION  dollar deficit in good economic times, and then topped his own act with a 4 TRILLION deficit (so far) in the plague year, 2020.  He’s an expert at spending nonexistent money.  So Genial Joe deserves his crack at it. 

Thank you, Millennials and your children and grandchildren, born and unborn, for my $1200 stimulus check and all that other cash your man has dealt out to protect our constitutional rights not to wear face masks and to exchange aerosol spray with each other in crowded bars.

My assignment is to take a look at Joe’s education budget. Specifically, the crown jewel, his one-liner: free college for everyone who comes from a household that makes less than $125,000 a year. 

Here’s the Spark Notes version: it’s a terrible idea.

First off, nothing’s free. Gentleman Joe has a bargain basement estimate of $50 billion new federal dollars for his plan despite the fact that the Fed and the states are broke. No funds? No problem! The feds presumably can pony up their share as long as the printing presses still work. But even if Santa found the money, it’s still a bad idea.

College isn’t for everyone.

The ACT folks do an analysis of the test scores made by the millions of college-bound high school seniors each years. That research yields, among other things, the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks.  They are the minimum scores a person must make to have a reasonable shot at succeeding in college level work.  In 2019:

  • 37% of 1.78 million graduating seniors were ready to succeed in at least 3 of 4 areas tested (English, reading, math, science). 
  • 36% met NONE of the four benchmarks.  And these are the students who took the ACTs, apparently thinking they should go to college.  Click HERE for the details.

Once they get to college, about a third of students graduate in four years and about 60% graduate in 6 years.  According to the World Bank, in 2018, the US of A:

  • Was twelfth in the world for grads from two year college or more (47%)
  • 18th in four year degrees (36%)
  • 25th in graduate degrees.

So What?  We still put a man on the moon!

We are still the go-to place if you’re ambitious and smart. We invented Google and Amazon and conspicuous consumption. The world’s best and brightest all want to work here.  That’s why five of 8 American Nobel prize winners in 2019 were born elsewhere. The US has always been a magnet for the world’s best and brightest. And we always will be, so long as nobody does anything stupid, like restricting access of foreign brainiacs.

But the real problem with Genial Joe’s plan isn’t higher education.  It’s what happens before that.

 Elementary and secondary education is being dumbed down. Students don’t get flunked anymore, because it’s bad for their egos. They don’t get disciplined, because parents have their lawyers on speed dial.  Teachers are chained to state standards of learning which are aimed at certifying that everyone can succeed.


The US Department of Education gives a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress to see how our huge investment in public K-12 education is working.  Results are published in a report called The Nation’s Report Card.  In 2019:

  • 35% and 34% of 4th and 8th graders, respectively, were judged “Proficient” in reading. 
  • In math, it was 41% proficient in grade 4, 34% grade 8. 

“Proficient” is neither the highest nor the lowest category, by the way.  It means, well, proficient.  The latest report card can be found at HERE.

We’re Number 2!  We’re Number 2!

Our costly K-12 program has to be tops in something.  How about spending per kid?  In 2017, only Norway topped our $12,800 per head.

The ugly truth is that not every kid in America is cut out for college.

Santa will need to call on his neighbor Rumplestiltskin to spin gold out of nothing if he wants to give out tuition-free college to the 80% or so of American households under $125,000 (pre-pandemic).  But just suppose it happened.  “Free” means demand would skyrocket.  And since there just aren’t enough high school grads in America with the mental equipment to succeed in college, what will happen?  What is happening?

There are 4,300 non-profit colleges in the U.S. and another 3,000 + degree-granting for-profits.  Out of that, maybe 200 are genuinely selective. The supply of potential college students is dropping due to demographic changes. That means colleges with costly empty seats and expensive physical plants and tenured faculty to support have to spend  to compete. 

Translation: discounted prices, whimsically called “scholarships.” 

Discounts now average 50%. The admissions job used to mean opening envelopes. Now it means hiring more recruiters, buying AI-powered chatbots, paying high price consultants and admissions gurus to do sophisticated market research and design slick campaigns to recruit, re-recruit, and steal your neighbors’ market. It means “learning centers,” counselors, advisors to help underprepared students get past crusty profs with standards. It means multi-million dollar rec centers with indoor kayaking rivers and dorms like upscale hotels. It means sushi bars instead of mystery meat. It means jury-rigging majors and minors and emphases in every sexy field that pops up,  You’re a successful farmer? How’d you like to be Instructor in our new Hemp Culture emphasis? And when they find out that hemp causes cancer, well, time to go back to school. How about our brand new MASTERS DEGREE in gaming?

As a result, the average tuition sticker price for public colleges is north of $20,000, and nearly double that for privates.  Add in 75% more for room and board, fees, comprehensive fees to pay for administrators and that kayak course.  I have to invoke Old Coots Privilege here. “When I was an undergrad” at a public university, I could make enough over the summer to pay my annual tuition.  Now, at the same school, that’s almost $25,000 a year. Hard to find summer jobs that pay that well. 

So there’s good news and bad news. 

The bad news is that nothing’s free. The bills always get paid, either 50 years from now by people who aren’t born yet, or by inflation, or by committing the unforgivable political sin: raising taxes.  The old ivy-covered brick and mortar “sage on a stage” model of higher ed, which worked for a thousand years, is in danger. Practically everyone has a prediction of doom. Here’s one sample placing one-third on “high risk,” based on a research-based model by a Boston consulting firm.

The good news is that the world wide web holds the promise of a renaissance in higher ed through online education and credit for prior learning. Work-study and apprenticeship programs, which have worked for millennia, are being reinvented. “Badges” and other certifications of competence are out there. The iron monopoly on accreditation jealously guarded by higher ed is crumbling as companies like Google launch their own certification programs. Check THIS out: The MOOC revolution means that anyone can take real courses by Ivy League profs for free through a number of different platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity. And more and more colleges are teaming up with major corporations to offer job-related educational advancement.  Interest in the ancient apprenticeship, learn/work partnership is growing fast.

The world keeps changing, but some things endure. There will always be a need for people to work and that means there will always be a need for training programs, whether they grant degrees or certificates or jobs.  There will always be politicians who will use your own money, or your children’s, to buy your vote.  Including My Man, Gentleman Joe Biden.

But there ain’t no Santa Claus.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. sometimes i feel like systems in the USA are unnecessarily complicated. i’m glad here we have free education until the end of high school and well subsidised tertiary education, although in Australia it was FREE from the 70s to the 80s w/o braking the bank. Having said that, USA is a different kettle of fish all together


    1. It is interesting because other countries certainly have a better grip on managing higher education, yet, you’re spot on with the fact that the US is a whole other beast. Simply transcribing one country’s policy onto another country doesn’t work. If it did, we would be living in quite a different world!


  2. maristravels says:

    What a sensible, interesting article, i.e. it agrees with my own ideas in every way. More from the academic, please, Katie.
    Here in the UK we have a similar educational quandary where everyone has been told for years they are entitled to a University education but not everyone wants it, or needs it, nor can most afford it and they start out life with huge debts from their college days. It seems to me that the Germany education system has evolved in the best way with equal strengths being seen in a technical (or manual, if you like) and an academic career. I have two nephews, one a high flyer in a London financial bank, the other a master-carpenter, both happy and earning a good living. But the carpenter felt he was letting his father down by not continuing at Uni and until we lose that outlook on education, the system will continue to fail our kids.
    Oh, and from this side of the ocean, I’m with you on Joe. Of course he’s a liar, he’s a politician, but then his lies don’t do as much damage as those of his oppo – the orange giant.


  3. ragnarsbhut says:

    If someone wants free college in the USA, serve in any branch of the armed forces. That will be a surefire way to achieve that goal. People who make demands for free college should pound sand.


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