College for all, the Europeans, and path dependency

College for all, the Europeans, and path dependency June 9, 2015

Remember when Bernie Sanders proposed his  College for All Act?  I had initially thought of it as so unserious as to not even merit any attention, but it seems relevant in light of the “I defaulted and I’m proud” op-ed from last weekend.

First, the Sanders plan:  given that public colleges are financed and governed at the state level, and private colleges, well, privately, his attempt to fund and govern colleges at the federal level is a bit convoluted.  Here are the key bits:

1) beginning in 2016, the federal government is to provide grants, with the state matching at a 67%/33% rate, equivalent to the amount that (including the states’ required portion) covers tuition and required fees at that state’s public universities for that year.  (The fiscal years are a bit off, or else the phrasing, presumably due to poor drafting — are the grants meant to equal the amount that the universities charged the prior year, or amounts that the universities determine that they would have charged, absent this bill?)

2) in the subsequent three years, the state is eligible for additional matching money towards “reducing the cost of attendance” if they use those funds to improve the instructional offerings; this is also poorly drafted:  after all, once tuition and fees have been eliminated, the only “cost of attendance” issue is room and board, but the purposes cited for the funds are such things as expanding course offerings, increasing the number of full-time faculty, and increasing student access to advising, counseling, and tutoring.

3) beginning in 2020, the federal government will reduce these grants for above-median schools until they are at the median level in 2019, but continuing with the stipulation that no participating university may charge tuition or mandatory fees.

4) in order to be eligible, besides eliminating tuition/fees, schools are required to do the following:

  • Maintain or increase per-student spending on instruction,
  • Maintain equal amounts of spending on financial aid (even though tuition is gone? towards room & board or students’ personal expenses, then?),
  • Within 2 years, provide 75% of instruction via tenured or tenure-track faculty,
  • Fully fund the cost of attendance for Pell Grant-eligible students,
  • and not intentionally reduce enrollment.

The legislation would also reduce student loan rates and increase work-study funding, but that’s of course separate and less interesting.


Now, imagining we thought it was a good idea to eliminate tuition, would this proposal work?  Not really.  What would work?  Well, there’s no reason why any individual state couldn’t increase their state funding and reduce tuition levels.  Sander’s home state could do that if they chose.  But he — and, let’s face it, plenty of other politicians — seem to think of federal money as “free” in a way that state money isn’t.  The pay-for here, after all, is a transaction tax on all stock sales, which is imagined as being a magic source of revenue, having no impact on the little guy (never mind your 401(k) and mutual funds) and only taking a fair-share amount from the rich.

Anyway, I bring this up because of the NYT op-ed this past weekend about the proud defaulter, which I blogged about on Sunday. Slate had an article which filled in some background:

Siegel, however, was not the unwitting victim of a predatory for-profit college. He was just a feckless liberal arts major. As the man tells it, he grew up in a “lower-middle-class family” and borrowed heavily for school after his parents split following his father’s bankruptcy. At first, he tried to do the financially responsible thing by transferring from his small, private college, to a state school near home in New Jersey. However, Siegel felt he “deserved better,” and left. Though his piece never mentions his alma mater by name, his official speaker’s bio states that he eventually went on to earn a B.A., M.A., and masters of philosophy from Columbia University. All of this was financed in part with the help of scholarship money, but also seemingly with a mountain of student debt. Later, Siegel concluded that he wouldn’t be able to pay off his obligations if he wanted to keep working as a writer. So he chose to shirk them instead. Thirty years after taking out his last loan, he notes, “the Department of Education is still pursuing the unpaid balance.”

So here’s the irony:

In Siegel’s just and fair alternate world, our university system would be tuition-free, like the Europeans.  But Siegel’s decision to choose Columbia rather than a state college, that started all the trouble, simply wouldn’t have been available to him, in that alternate world.  

European colleges are a world apart from American colleges.  The elements that drive up the cost of college in the U.S., and at private schools, simply don’t exist there.

The emphasis on advising, counseling, and tutoring?  Students in Europe are expected to know what they want to do, and do it.  It’s typical to have a single requirement for the class, be it an exam or a paper, so you’d better stay on top of your learning to be able to produce this.  There are no grades for participation, and, I believe, no “office hours” as we think of them.

Students are also expected to plunge into their major requirements immediately.  It’s assumed that your high school coursework has been of sufficient rigor that you don’t need a set of “general education” courses in composition, the humanities, and the sciences — you’re assumed to have learned that already.

No bells and whistles in the facilities, either, whether it’s the instructional buildings or student dorms.  (I stayed at a dorm in Lille, France, for a time, as a grad student — no hot water in the showers, no seats on the toilets, bring-your-own toilet paper.)

No athletics, or other “school spirit” activities.  No stadiums.  The cafeteria?  Variable, from what I’ve seen, it’s where the pejorative “cafeteria food” comes from.

I suspect no diversity or sustainability initiatives.  Certainly no Title IX!

As to adjunct vs. full-time faculty, I don’t know, but in Germany, it can be quite difficult to move from the post-doc phase into professorship, for the humanities as well.

And, of course, there’s no such thing as admission by means of having a GED.  In Germany, it’s the Abitur, which is considered equivalent in rigor to an American student on the honors track.

Sources?  OK, partly, “what my husband told me,” but see:

This Slate piece on German universities.

This article in Washington Monthly:  “All of this translates to savings: the average cost of an undergraduate degree in Germany is $32,000.”

This article on French universities (with a focus on student life, but it has some relevant information).

And a short piece on European universities in general.


could we transform our university system into a European system?  Not without a lot of gnashing of teeth, from people like Siegel, who want to have their [full-featured American-style private university] and eat it too.

Could we even take our system as-is, and have the feds pay for it?  Not without a lot of moral hazard, and/or the same sort of micromanagement and Rube Goldberg machine that has happened with Obamacare.  And Sanders doesn’t even attempt to fund private schools, so all the future Siegels would still be paying $60K+ per year.

Hence, “path dependency.”  We’re stuck where we are.  Having traveled the path we have, through the creating of state universities, the tussle between state and federal funding expectations, a system of private universities quite unlike the Europeans, and the steady growth in “frills,” it makes it quite a bit more difficult to re-make the system than if we had had the history that underlies the quite-different European system.

UPDATE:  I see that instapundit has linked to me (yay!) and used as the title, the tweet that I wrote, with a link, yesterday:  “Everyone wants free college, “just like Europe,” but no one wants the European college system,” rather than the dorkier post title, above. Just thought I’d clarify for any that are wondering what that’s about.

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