Fee-Free, Stigma-Free, and Open Education


In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kenneth Warren and Samir Sonti made an important point about the stigmatising effect of anything that is made freely available based on personal financial need. They point to the problem of creating a stratified “welfare education” system that will likely undermine the public good value of free college.  In addition to considering the logic of free education, it is also worth considering the benefits of open education, and asking why fee-free college and open education are critically important and are not being discussed together as part of the same public policy debate. 

Stigmatizing Access

Kenneth W. Warren and Samir Sonti, posted a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education on December 16, 2015 titled Nobody Should Have to Pay to Go to College. I think that it is worth a quick read (it is a short article) and the main point of the commentary deserves some thought. Reading through the arguments and putting aside the objections to free college, I believe that the central point of the article is that a free college education, like any other investment in a public good ought to be stigma free. The authors express this notion succinctly, pointing out that,

[t]he first step to stigmatizing the idea of the public good is to divide the citizenry into those who need help and those who don’t — a move that only masks certain forms of public assistance (tax breaks) while making other forms (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) markers of irresponsibility.

I am making a point of this, because I think that it is the point of the article, and it seems to be one that is easily missed. Perhaps most commenters on the Chronicle site looked past this point because the objections to free college or university education are a bit incendiary.

  • The first objection was economic. Free education would be a waste of public funds because the college dropout rate is currently so high.
  • The second objection was also economic. Public funds for free college education should not be available to those who can afford to pay.
Interestingly the first argument might be construed as supporting the idea that education is a public good, while the second objection is logically an argument that education is a private good. The reasonableness of both objections really needs to be considered alongside an assessment of the aggregate private and public benefits that individuals and society enjoy by participation in and graduation from college. If those aggregated benefits exceed the total costs, then free education is a good public investment regardless of either argument. The idea of free education is best framed in terms of an investment in social progress and personal well-being, rather than as an entitlement of citizenship or a reward for previous service. That is not to say that higher education is necessarily the best investment on the long list of important public good investments, although it might be, but it is at least a place to start the public policy discussion. I do not think that we need to assume that the best investment is in 4 year degrees, or elaborate athletic programs, or we need to assume that free education necessarily means open admission to every public college or university. All of these and many other topics need to be rationally discussed as part of the public policy debate.
It seems to me that in any event we ought to be considering how the transaction costs associated with fee-free college can be decreased in order to increase the net public and private benefit. This simple point recognises that fee-free college is not cost free. We are after all talking about the redistribution of income, which is a serious commitment. We all have an obligation to ensure that public funding is spent responsibly and effectively. To Warren’s and Sonti’s point, I would suggest that there are a number of transaction costs associated with stigmatising fee-free college education. First, there are the emotional and social costs associated with stigmatising any group. There is a personal cost of overcoming the stigma of accepting something free that may be considered inferior by some simply because it is free for those who cannot afford it, which might even decrease its market value artificially. There are also transaction costs for the government, universities, and students. They take the form of regulation, compliance, and enforcement necessary to ensure that only those who qualify for “welfare education” have access. Although costs associated with the oversight of public funds are essential, stigma and related compliance costs are unnecessary and counter productive. They can be easily addressed by adopting the principle that a public college education ought to free to all, because it is good for all – so long as the aggregate benefits are greater than the total costs. Recognising “stigma costs” is a good contribution to the discussion, as they seem to get little meaningful attention or consideration.
I would suggest that a discussion about open education more broadly is worth considering in this context as well. Theoretically using open and free educational resources whenever practicable should reduce the transaction costs of acquiring, sharing and managing educational content. For example, today, if I were to assign Herbert Crowly’s The Promise of American Life for a history or political science course, I could order it from a vendor carrying a distribution from a proprietary publisher and it would cost students about 25 USD per copy. Alternatively, I could refer learners to the Internet Archive and they could download it for no cost as it is in the public domain. To the extent that the cost of books and other learning materials can be reduced, the overall transaction costs for access to education can also be reduced. Likewise, if we believe that university professors provide a benefit to students by designing their courses and providing structure, assigning particular readings, posing thoughtful questions, and making meaningful assignments that help guide learning, why would we not want to make those artefacts freely available to self-directed learners for their benefit? That is, if we do believe that some students are more likely to learn more effectively when engaging in a structured course of study than she or he is without any guidance, then we might realise additional public good coming from reducing the transaction costs to learners who are not registered at a free university, but are engaging in self-study. The costs are reduced for learners and spread across different types of learners, while the benefits are increased by providing access to anything that can help support learning and access generally.
Much of this is not novel. There are many examples of open course content and open curriculum. Much of it is rather vocational in nature, and much if it is not terribly well designed for independent learning, but it is available. We are fortunate to be seriously discussing fee-free education at this time at a national level, in public, with passion, and with urgency. A cursory scan of the 80 plus comments posted on The Chronicle site to Warren and Sonti’s commentary illustrates that there are perspectives on the topic and those willing to contribute to the conversation. Everything about this conversation is complex. Topics for example, ranging from education financing, faculty autonomy, academic integrity, credentialism, perspectives on private and public good, measurement of educational impact on society, assumptions about equity and welfare, and the consequences of tax burden, are technically complex, value laden, and emotionally charged. That is, they are not simple conversations and they do require participation from a range of interests.In the United States, Democratic nominee candidates, Sanders and Clinton both have free-college proposals on the table. It would be wonderful if during the next 24 months free college is assumed and the discussion turns to debate over the details of various plans. For example, we might be exploring the relative benefits of integrating service learning into the curriculum of all public education; the possibilities of promoting citizen science at an international scale to stir interest in STEM and provide open data supporting educational, social, and commercial progress; and the practicalities of making resources funded by the public available to the public. All of these topics have the potential to generate additional public good benefits that are lost when educational access is restricted, framed exclusively as a private good, and closed. It is important that before any proposal is adopted and refined or dismissed and taken off the table it is subject to the type of rigorous and critical debate necessary for the development of well-crafted and thoughtful public policy. One of the arguments for free and open public education is to ensure that as a society we have the civic capacity to engage in this and similar debates.

If we can have a serious and critical discussion at the national level about fee-free college, why can we not have a similarly serious discussion about Open Education for those attending a public university and for those who want to study independently?  Is there an underlying logic that supports not only free college for all, but open access to publicly funded educational resources – as a matter of practical and sound public policy?


From The Chronicle of Higher Education, By Kenneth W. Warren and Samir Sonti, December 16, 2015.
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Fee-Free, Stigma-Free, and Open Education by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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