By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
I read an interesting piece in iPolitics.ca by Ilona Dougherty about the issues of free tuition and the future of higher education—both issues I spend a fair amount of attention on. In the article, she mentions that the Canadian Federation of Students (CSF), a non-profit organization that, well, makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz, would like the Canadian Parliament to provide $1.8 billion in federal money to help make university free in Canada. This is a standard pitch for CFS. At least they are consistent.
I have previously argued that free tuition is an imprudent public policy for the masses as it is regressive in nature, meaning that it actually helps the affluent more than it helps the poor. When Bernie Sanders came out last year for free tuition, I quickly denounced his strategy because it does not make any fiscal nor social sense for a nation. Certainly, reduced tuition, fees, and room and board—that is, total cost of attendance—must remain a primary public policy for helping the poor. As well, these policies are increasingly important for middle class families who find themselves at the nexus of limited need-based grants and high cost of attendance, significantly impacting their postsecondary choices. For affluent families, they should pay a higher rate for college attendance because they have the disposable income to handle the burden. Even so, all public higher education is subsidized to a degree, so everyone gets something, if not for free, for much cheaper than full pay. Even private, non-profit institutions provide significant need and non-need-based aid to students of all income levels. So everyone is getting a deal somewhere. But suggesting that everyone receives free tuition is simply a very bad suggestion for public policy.
But Dougherty makes a secondary and much more salient point that perhaps free tuition is not bold enough for consideration. She uses information from CFS itself which states that 40 percent of 25-34 year olds in Canada with a university degree are “overqualified for their current position.” And here comes the rub.
Why are we pushing more and more students to a four-year (or more) university degree if the jobs are not available? Again, I’ve argued this for over a decade that our institutions and their degrees, with some exceptions, are out of time, out of sync, and out of place. We are using an archaic analog system in a digital world, still based on Carnegie units and still based on seat time for learning. Certainly, online presence has pushed the boundaries of higher education, but only marginally. It has mainly displaced the seat time issue from here to anywhere. The structure of higher education is roughly the same as it was in the 1950s. And in a brave new world that is based on knowledge transfer rather than acquisition, this is a problem.
It would not be a problem, of course, if tuition was free. At least not to students and parents, many of who are either giving away their first mortgage or, for the latter, their retirement, to ensure a university-level education. But free tuition is paid by someone, and it always comes back to you and me—society as a whole. But even in a subsidized tuition model, perhaps one that is better structured than what we currently have, the opportunity cost for students in addition to the financial burden is a serious issue—especially based on these graduates being “overqualified” for their jobs.
Let us stop talking about silly things such as free tuition. That argument is a complete waste of time because (a) it will never happen because it is political unfeasible and (b) it should never happen because it lacks any fiscal or social responsibility. Let us have the argument about where the balance resides between fairness and equity for those who need societal support and those who pay the tax burden. And then let us have the more important argument about our moral deficit in pushing people to take on oversized loans to earn a degree that is not very tangible in the current employment market.
The mousetrap is broken. Let us embrace our technology and our evolving society to ensure that our higher education system focuses on competencies while still instilling the importance of the “liberal arts.” Let us design a system that does not force students to spend X amount of time in school, but ensures that when they graduate they possess top-shelf skills in reading, writing, comprehension, application, and synthesis. Perhaps we need to take ourselves back to Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives to re-center our efforts.
It would be aloof to suggest that conversations are not happening on this level or focus, but the conversations are not very loud in an arena that is deafening with regard to student debt and gainful employment. We need to redesign our system so it is more reflective of the needs of business, industry, and society. It needs to be able provide both resilience and malleability in altering course and providing skill sets that parallel with those that are being requested in the field; skill sets that are about process more than knowledge, while maintaining the quest for competence. Too many people have given short shrift to the potential of stackable credits and other short-term learning credentials. The quest for a higher education should be recast as a quest for an education that matters and is worth the time, effort, and money. We are only doing that now for a sliver of those who go and complete college. That is just not good enough.
On a parallel track, the solution to higher education also requires us paying far more attention to what goes on in secondary education. Much more effort must be placed on ensuring that incoming college students—at all levels—have a respectful mastery of language and critical analysis that provides the foundation for “higher” learning. Too many of our freshman college students simply do not possess the skills to learn effectively or efficiently in college, no matter what it looks like, necessarily increasing the opportunity cost for them, especially for those who do not complete a college degree.
We need to take responsibility for sustaining a system that is antiquated in a face-paced, dynamically-evolving global society. Sitting for four-plus years is not the answer. Ensuring high-level thinking and learning is. Let’s move on from free higher education to progressive higher education—a system that benefits all stakeholders, not just the chosen few.