Elizabeth Warren has a defiant voice; if for no other reason she challenges us to question what is fair. Her demonstrated moxy to publicly malign Wall Street CEOs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis won my admiration.

We would be misguided, though, to interpret her platform on public education as radical or new in any way. At the turn of the 20th century, Progressive John Dewey reasoned that a functioning democracy depends upon tuition-free public education – that included college. He, in turn, was informed by Thomas Jefferson on the subject.

These are Warren’s words: “Like K-12 education, college is a basic need that should be available for free to everyone who wants to go. That’s why I’m proposing a historic new federal investment in public higher education that will eliminate the cost of tuition and fees at every public two-year and four-year college in America.”

At first blush, and as a parent of two budding students, she speaks checkbook-pleasing language. Yet we know that pleased checkbooks have a way of backfilling with all manner of rationale.

Without too much effort we can dismiss “free to everyone” as distorted economics, to be kind. Taxpayers would simply enlarge their K-12 tithing to include all public post-secondary institutions. On the other hand, if Warren can convince all higher education faculty, staff and administrators to contribute their careers as a donation to her cause, then we might approach something called “free.”

Sure, Elizabeth, I get your intent: there are some 20 million college undergrads (up 30 percent from the year 2000), half of whom do not get financial support from their parents, and a third of whom fall below the federal poverty line. For most of these college students, keeping the federal loan spigot open is essential — and not only for them. It’s necessary to keep the vast machinery of the education industry running. This is especially true as state allocations are shrinking.

Average debt per graduate is $29,800, and 45 million Americans have educational loan debt.

More than a quarter of American adults have a college bachelor’s degree and many will testify that university has been the “great leveler” of socio-economic and class disparities. And placing an onerous backpack of debt upon students, especially the poor and underprivileged, runs counter to this aim of equality. Isn’t that implicit in the “basic need” that Warren echoes?

Leveling the playing field remains a noble cause. What does that look like though, when we bring that lofty goal down to earth and onto a public university campus?

Are we talking about tuition-free job skills, credentials, access to well-connected alumni, a handhold onto a higher social class rung? In other words, pinpointing the “basic need” is not so straightforward. For example, there is an increasingly important socialization need to transition our youth into responsible adulthood.

Red herrings abound.

Then we turn to the delivery mechanism for these needs – if we dare – the modern-day university megalith and the weight of its organizational and fiscal dysfunction. “Free” education conveys our endorsement for layer upon layer of three-piece suits and their pensions.

From 1987 to 2012 the university system added more than half a million administrators, effectively doubling the administrator to faculty ratio. Each additional six-figure administrator though, is ostensibly finding better ways to meet those somewhat elusive “basic needs” – right?

And I’m afraid we’ve only scratched the surface. Last year, university constructions costs tallied to some $11.5 billion, adding to a $150 billion paunch of debt across campuses nationwide. And we will of course require additional administrators to justify the gleaming edifices and their interest payments, along with preparing students for the “digital age of possibility” or whatever the latest coat of PR paint reads.

There is no holy grail. Much of the pablum in support of free college tuition comes from faculty themselves. They too must fall silent or in line with the hierarchy to support the university industry’s ongoing cattle drive for greater tuition-paying numbers, wherever those tuition dollars may emanate from.

While free public higher education feels good and is politically expedient, its effect will be like that of an opiate: short-lived euphoria followed by long-term dependency, with the underlying conditions left untouched.

After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view.

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