• Jonathan

Free College

If this were any of the last two presidential election seasons, I’d likely have used last week’s Democratic primary debates as fodder CriticalVoter analysis.

For example, in previous writing I have pointed out that the reason televised debates seem so bizarre and artificial is that the real audience for the participants – the media and voters watching from home – are not in the room (despite trappings such as moderators and live audience members). This creates a dynamic where candidates have to package their actual appeals to this real audience as responses to questions asked of them by the human props in the room.

In a 20+ person race, this phenomenon seems particularly surreal, given how little time each candidate has to accomplish the mission of setting themselves apart from the others enough to be perceived as a front runner, rather than an also ran.

Others have commented how this leads to candidates staking out of extreme positions, or at least positions they haven’t traditionally adhered to, in order to avoid being politically outflanked. From a critical-thinking perspective, this dynamic does not allow discussion or follow up on complex ideas, such as the “free college” proposals thrown around in the first debates.

Since running a college costs money (which a frightening number of colleges seem to not have enough of, despite even more frightening price tags), “free college” obviously means kids going to college with someone other than they and their parents (presumably the federal government) footing the bill. So a debate over free college is actually a debate over making direct federal spending on what used to be called “tuition” a national priority.

This might or might not be a good idea, although it certainly needs more fleshing out before choices can be made. For example, would the ultimate goal be to have government pay for anyone – rich or poor – attending any school – from Yale to the neighborhood community college – making government the primary “buyer” of higher education in the country? Or might “free college” apply to narrower ends, such as helping the less well-off attend state or community colleges without having to pay anything out of pocket or take on huge debt?

Only by filtering the various plans presented during the debates (many of which are supported by more detailed arguments at candidate web sites) can we ferret out the premises and structure of the arguments contained within such plans to determine which are reasonable and which are not. Sadly, the rhetoric surrounding political campaigning (especially in this day and age) means few candidates are likely to go into this level of detail on the stump, lest they be condemned as a boring wonk.

This is too bad since one statement at the second debate, by candidate Pete Buttigeig, represents a phrase with potential for fruitful discussion. When asked about his support for various proposals related to education “Mayor Pete” said we should look at “not just the high cost of college” but the “high cost of not going to college,” an interesting concept I’d like to dig into next time.