Mike Konczal has a fairly compelling argument that it would make sense to dismantle the entire crazy quilt of "submerged state" tax deductions and credits designed to help make college affordable and just use the money to directly provide free or near-free college education at public universities.
I think, though, that any effort to radically rethink higher education finance does need to go back to first principles. Why spend public money on this at all? Why not dismantle the submerged state exactly as Konczal suggests, and give the money to poor people? Then people could use the money to buy higher education services or not according to whether or not they thought vendors of said services were, all things considered, offering a reasonable value proposition. There are good answers to this question (I think) but the nature of the answer you give helps shape your agenda for higher education reform.
So why not just give poor people money and let them decide how they want to spend it? The obvious answer is that they ought to spend it on education, but they won't. In a smart follow-up post, Konczal tries to find a nice way to say this.
As Konczal has it, the "liberal paternalist" argument against simply giving cash to the poor is that this encourages dependence, but we're trying to encourage independence. I think this is a good argument!
Against this sort of liberal paternalist Konczal offers Peter Frase, who argues from the left that it's better to give the poor money than to make to sure they have access to jobs, because most wage labor is demeaning and enervating, and the only reason anyone does it is to make money. So just give them money!
Frase thinks "that having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout" only to the extent that "we, as a society, treat wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth." The suggestion seems to be that if we, as a society, treated as a source of dignity and worth whatever else folks are up to, other than wage-laboring, there'd be no particular problem with the dole. This strikes me as a bit silly.
We, as a society, just aren't going to regard whatever folks want to do as a source of dignity and worth. Lots of us have a fairly narrow, though eminently reasonable, view of what's dignified and worthwhile. The ideal of society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage is a good one, as is the idea of society as an order of mutual respect and fair reciprocity (which comes to the same thing, by my lights). If you want a cut of the cooperative surplus, you've got to pitch in and cooperate! If you can, but you don't, most of us are going to resent your insisting on a cut anyway, even if we think we owe you something, just because you're a person. There's an important sense in which you don't have it coming, that it's unfair to claim a share, and if you feel a little bad about taking it, most of us are going to be glad you feel a little bad, because probably you should. In a decent order of fair reciprocity, having a job gives a person a greater sense of self-worth than getting a handout because paychecks are compensation for having made others better off -- are hard evidence we are worth something to somebody else -- and handouts, as such, aren't. Being worth something to others gives us good reason to feel we're worth something to ourselves.
Frase talks a bit about the importance of non-market labor, and it is important. But, again, it's not clear that it's money we owe to people who are providing services to their own families, or selflessly volunteering to write Wikipedia entries.
Now, sometimes we need help, and we shouldn't feel too bad about accepting it when we need it. But we should try not to need it, and part of what it means to treat people with respect is to encourage them not to need it. If this is a matter of convention, it's a good convention. Now, like Frase, I favor a guaranteed social minimum, but not because people should get a cut of the surplus no matter what they do or don't do, but because I think (and this is an empirical hypothesis) indemnifying one another against downside risk induces more and better cooperation. My pitching in to put a floor under you is something you can justify to me, and everybody else, if it's likely to put you in a better position to make me, and everybody else, better off than we'd be if you (and we) didn't enjoy the assurance of a floor.
Konczal goes on to quote T.M. Scanlon at length, and Scanlon makes a great point:
The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.
Right! And there are facts of the matter about what our interests are. One of the greatest of these is that it is much in our interests to develop the capacity to tell the difference between what we actually need and what we just happen to want. Let's call this capacity "autonomy." Autonomy has real developmental conditions. If we haven't become able to exercise judgment in this way, if we haven't developed what it takes to be a reliable agent of our own interests, it's not always going to be in our interests to be empowered to buy what we want.
This is, to my mind, the best reason to not just give people money and then find out whether they spend it on what they are or their children need in order to become full-blooded autonomous agents. Is there something a little paternalistic about this? There sure is! Is this a problem? Yes! It's not easy to come to agreement about the developmental conditions for autonomy. But we do the best we can, and it's not that controversial. We agree, more or less, that a certain measure of economic security, access to decent food, decent health care, and a decent education are generally necessary for the development of the capacities that put us in a position to make robustly autonomous decisions about our lives.
One problem is that those of us who were deprived of these goods may not be well-positioned to make great decisions on the behalf of our children. Offering free school, nutritional assistance, subsidized housing and the like, instead of just giving parents a chunk of change to buy whatever they do or don't want for their kids is a pretty literal kind of paternalism. I call it "meta-paternalism," paternalism in the service of the development of the sort robust autonomy it is wrong to paternalistically interfere with, once it's in place. We paternalistically intervene to prevent parents from being bad paternalists to their kids. Kids need their parents to make good decisions on their behalf, and we, as a society, try to help kids the best we can while minimizing the chance parents will make bad decisions to their kids' detriment. Alas, parents can always use their autonomy to screw up the development of their kids autonomy, but not as much as they might like.
Now, is higher education needed for the development of autonomy? I don't think so. One thorny issue here may be timing. If we've done a good job giving kids the basic goods and opportunities they need for the development of autonomy, they may nevertheless require a little time before it all comes together. Suppose the government gives every kid from a relatively poor family a big check on their eighteenth birthday (how big depends on how poor, say) and tells them they can spend it any way they like. Go to school! Start a business! Whatever!
What's going to happen? I dunno, but I would predict more than a little regret by age twenty-something. Does this mean we should nudge young adults toward college by, say, making it free. I don't think so. This strikes me as an excellent way to subsidize the academy. But if the idea is to help finish off the development of robust autonomy, and/or to subsidize the development of socially valuable human capital, it might be better to just give hard-up kids money with strings attached.