Free college narratives

Supposing college was free, what would the social narrative about the recipients of it be? I have seen two basic approaches:

1. It is a right. I owe nothing.
Under this narrative, recipients of free college are due free college as a matter of right. To deprive them of it is to oppress them. When they receive the free college, it is not a privilege, a bonus, an excess; rather, they are simply getting what already belongs to them.

This is the way the student movement in the U.S. has gone. The students are the downtrodden and the oppressed because they are required to finance large parts of their college education. It is common now to even see them included in lists of oppressed people alongside people of color, women, and the poor.

The problem with this narrative is two-fold. First, on the merits, it is very implausible to include college students in the ranks of the oppressed. If you line up a list of identities and their opposite — black/white, man/woman, poor/rich, straight/gay, student/non-student — the thing that stands out about student is that, all else equal, it is the better identity to be. The college wage premium still stands at around $1 million, making it hard to really contemplate students as an especially oppressed category of people.

Second, and more important for my point here, it establishes the future economic elite of the country as not really owing others anything. They don’t owe others for their free college because it was theirs to begin with as a matter of right. I am generally fine with these kinds of statements, but not when they are being made about and by the future economic elite of the country. A narrative that paints them as just getting what they are due with respect to free college misses a huge and important opportunity to describe them as indebted to the rest of society for paying for their college.

2. It is a privilege. I owe everything.
Under this narrative, free college is described as a generous gratuity from the rest of society, especially those who never get to go. In order to allow you to study and not work for many years, the rest of society — including those workers who are your age but do not get to attend — puts aside some of the national product just for you.

The amount put aside comes to you, not as some hyper-individualist right, but as a humbling gift. Working class people who never get to use the colleges toil for you while you study. Accordingly, you are deeply indebted to them for that gift. Without it, you would not have been able to get your degree and all of the market benefits it generally comes with.

The benefit of this narrative is that it allows society, and working-class people in particular, to make totally legitimate claims on the future market incomes of the college-degreed. Under the first narrative, it is very easy for the college-degreed — who go on to be management and grab up all the other spots in the top of the economic hierarchy — to say that they don’t owe anybody anything. The free college certainly doesn’t bind them to anyone else: it was theirs as a matter of right, not some gratuity from society that they should reciprocate.

But under this second narrative, you don’t have that. A rich college-degreed person who looks back and says they don’t owe anyone anything and shouldn’t have their market income taxed at high rates to fund social benefits and such is being ridiculous. The only reason they have those high market incomes is because of the college everyone else toiled to provide for them. People gave up part of the national product to allow them to acquire the skills, abilities, and credentials precisely so that they could occupy those lucrative spots. Accordingly, you owe them for supporting you in such a generous way. That income is not exclusively yours: it was gotten through a concerted social effort to finance your education, something most people don’t get.

The fact that the free college people in the US almost exclusively gravitate towards the first narrative is very troubling to me. We already have a problem of people at the top of the economic hierarchy acting like they are owed the big chunk of the national income that some hypothetical set of market institutions would deliver to them. Put another way: the top of our society is already in the grips of a bad dose of entitlement mentality. Free college as a right only entrenches that mentality further, while free college as a gratuitous privilege from those who toil helps to undermine it.

The only way free college (as opposed to debt-financed college) is of much use to the majority of poor and working class people who do not attend it is if it can help ensure that the market income gains that flow to college graduates are spread around. But the rights-based narrative that animates the current free college movement makes that much harder to justify.