The Sustainable, Resilient, and Free University by John Warner: A Review

Can higher education’s biggest problems be solved with a free public model?

Free public college.

Cancellation of student debt.

Higher education has been dominating the major headlines this past year due to COVID shutdowns, the new normal of online education, the scale of job loss across the sector, and of course, the student debt crisis.

The Biden administration has big goals for education, including plans to address the $1.6 trillion-dollar student debt elephant in the room and increase access to public community colleges. But there is no simple answer to a massively complex, embedded problem. Critics of cancelling student debt argue that it’s unfair to those that have dutifully paid their debts, or that it won’t solve the root problem of the rapidly increasing tuition costs. Critics of free college argue that college has lost its credibility and doesn’t deserve to be free, or that there is no way to fund our public higher education infrastructure. What is the way out of this higher ed death spiral?

I am no economist, nor an expert in government spending, but I know a lot about higher education having spent over a decade as a student, and now as an educational research scientist. Cancelling student debt would certainly be beneficial to me personally, but I haven’t been convinced that it would solve a deep-rooted problem in higher education. Nor had I thought that simply making college free would solve the right problems either. But then I read Sustainable. Resilient. Free.

Experienced educator and writer John Warner pointedly argues that for public higher education to survive it must be free. No tuition. No fees. No debt.

All public two-year and four-year postsecondary education institutions in the United States should be tuition-fee. America should also cancel all existing federally help student loan debt.

This is the cure for higher education’s current ailments.

Tuition-free public higher education is necessary because it is the only way to reorient colleges and universities around the mission of teaching and learning. (p. 81)

Warner decisively lays out the evidence and logic of his proposal. The immediate rejection of his solution comes in two forms: (1) there is no way to pay for that, and (2) universities aren’t doing a good enough job at helping students learn anyway, so we shouldn’t fund them.

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First, the more straightforward of the two. On pages 84-85 Warner evidences that it would cost just under $80 billion per year to fund all existing public universities. He also notes that the government currently spends about $92 billion on “policies to subsidize college attendance.” If true, then he argues to streamline services and redirect all those funds to fund public higher education. And we may have some funds left over.

Moving on to the more complex objection to higher education: students don’t learn anything anyways. Modern higher education has become solely focused on two goals: revenue and credentialing. Warner argues that teaching and learning are not the core missions of universities anymore precisely because they have instead been focused on the revenue and credentialing targets.

Because of the focus on ‘operations’ rather than ‘mission’ higher education as an industry has devolved into the state the Bryan Caplan outlines in his book, The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, in which students aren’t learning that much in college, but rather college degrees serve as largely a signal for the job market. If we cease to make learning the focus of higher education, then there is no incentive to teach well, and there is little incentive to learn. Faculty are there to do their research, and students are there to get their credential. Learning is no longer fundamentally necessary.

That higher education as a system is no longer centered around teaching and learning, but one centered on revenue, Caplan’s analysis of the higher education landscape is depressingly accurate. But, if we switch gears completely in the direction advocated for by Warner, we can reorient the university around teaching and learning. Without tuition, without revenue goals, and without a hyper-focus on credentialing, the only point of the university becomes to teach and to learn. Precisely what higher education should be about.

Sustainable. Resilient. Free. is a refreshing book on higher education for several reasons. First, rather than highlighting all the things wrong with higher education – which, to be fair, anyone who works in this industry can attest there is a seemingly never-ending list of wrongs – he proposes a comprehensive solution to the problems. Moreover, his solution is to bring the university back to a central and uncompromising focus on educating students – a position I can stand behind, and which remains my driving motivation to working in higher education.

Overall, I think he makes a strong case, and as a whole package, I support it. But it’s not without limitations.

What about research?

Warner addresses the research problem on page 101:

If public money is going to substitute for student tuition, it follows that it should go toward funding the instructional mission of a college or university. Presently, particularly at research universities, it does not. In fact, student tuition subsidizes all manner of what is common called “departmental research.” This is probably going to have to stop. It is going to have to stop because the mechanism by which this research work has been protected is through the steady “adjunctification” of faculty, a process that has only worsened over time.

I wrote about the difference in missions between teaching universities and research universities recently, and it does seem to be true that research, to a large extent, is done at the expense of teaching. In Warner’s free model, though, federal funding supports the labor of teaching, but not necessarily research.

He argues that most research that comes out of universities is largely useless (which I am sure one could find no shortage of people to agree with that), but there is value in research and the research university that must be considered. (For the record, I don’t think teaching or research should be done at the expense of the other. My objection to university research is that it is done at the expense of teaching.)

I see two broad solutions to the ‘what about research’ problem in the free public university model that Warner advocates for: (1) a baseline amount of federal funding to all faculty that proportional to the amount of their job designated for research (just as it will be for teaching under Warner’s model; see pp. 104 – 106); or (2) research universities opt out of federal funding, which Warner explains on page 181. In both scenarios, faculty can compete for federal and private grant money as they do now. Like most things, if you can pay for it yourself, more power to you.

Warner does not address option one in which some federal money is designated to research, rather he advocates for faculty earning their own research funds or universities opting out of federal funding and compete their way to success. I think the latter is a relatively poor choice.

Major research universities already have equity problems, most of them enrolling low proportions of low-income and minority students. They are already prohibitive to many. By having the option for a free education at a non-research university and an option for a costly education at a major research university will heavily bias access toward the former and likely increase inequity. If we have at all a goal to increase representation of graduate degree holders and in science, research universities – which are responsible for the majority of graduate training – essentially having to opt out and charge tuition to fund their research programs will likely worsen the diversity and equity problems so many universities are trying to address.

I also think the opt-out model Warner presents is overall bad for society. Even assuming most research is ‘useless’ there is value in not disincentivizing curiosity and failure in pursuit of discovery and innovation. Scientists know this all too well. If you can’t prove the applications and impact of your research before you even start it, it’s hard to get it funded. By disincentivizing basic research, we as a society lose out on innovation, creativity, and fostering curiosity.

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Warner is right about the core problem as I see it: that higher education as an industry is no longer in the business of teaching and learning, but rather are as he puts it “machines designed to capture education-related revenue”. I agree that the labor of teaching should funded by the government as a solution to reorient higher education’s focus. I disagree that research should not be part of that conversation.

Providing a baseline of research funding for any faculty based proportionately on their research duties will produce innovation and access to research opportunities for students across university types. Faculty can certainly apply for competitive research funding. Universities can also, if they choose, opt-out of the free university. Private colleges and universities can remain in existence, too.

The higher education landscape can accommodate a variety of types but, as Warner has made a strong case for, public education should be funded. It is a public good; it is part of our public infrastructure. And we can do better to treat it as such and bring the focus of higher education back to the education of students.