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The call for a free education comes at the exact time that public universities are stretched for money due to state imposed budget cuts. They are forced to raise tuition, hire more part time faculty, and increase class size. Universities are also moving courses online and creating MOOCS (massive open online classes). There is a frisson for the use of technology as a means of solving the problem.
The call for free higher education clearly couldn't come at a worse time for those trying to deliver higher education. There is not strong public financial support for higher ed. State legislatures across the country are now largely run by fiscal conservatives who are unlikely to provide more funding for higher education. Indeed, they are likely to cut tax support while at the same time demanding lower tuition rates.
In this environment, those supporting free higher education are really supporting a greater Wal-Martization of the university experience. Universities will be forced into hiring more part time faculty, instruction will move more and more online. Instruction labor will likely become globalized with low paid instructors logging into classroom environments from distant lands.
What I find interesting in this context is that many who now control the state legislatures, and are actively cutting funding to public universities, are very much support of the for-profit higher education model. For-profit universities often run their programs online with adjunct faculty. Students pay premium tuition dollars and some of the funds are used to earn revenue for investors. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might suggest that the call for free higher education is supported by those who are trying to put a nail in the coffin of public universities. Imagine what would happen to a major university system if a state legislature enforced a free education on university management without providing funding--a not too crazy scenario in today's politics. The quality would decrease and make the for profit universities more attractive.
Please know that I am concerned with the costs of public higher education and we should all work to lower the costs. Yet without a return of taxpayer support for higher education, it is unlikely that public universities will be able to deliver free education without significantly diminishing quality.
For full disclosure, I work at a private non-profit university which is neither a public or for-profit university. The tuition costs are reinvested into the university to create high-quality and high-value experiences for students.