What We’re Owed: John Warner on the Future of Higher Education

February 3, 2021   •   By Ryan Boyd

Sustainable. Resilient. Free.

John Warner

IF, IN MIXED COMPANY, you say you think that attending a public college shouldn’t cost a student anything, opposition frequently takes the form of a weary pragmatism. Most people don’t want to seem antidemocratic or heartless — it being an American custom to extol the benefits of education — so they fall back on sentiment then skepticism: Sure, that’s a noble idea that I’d ordinarily support — but how can we afford it? In other words, if you believe in free college, you’re a good-hearted utopian with an unworkably expensive plan. Forget it. Sign up for some loans if you want a degree.

But as John Warner points out in his new polemic Sustainable. Resilient. Free. The Future of Public Higher Education, no-cost public college is neither utopian nor new. Rather, narratives that say college should be expensive, that you should take out debt to pay for it if you don’t have family funding, that it is a private investment in your future, are the historically recent developments. These narratives are products of the neoliberal revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, the rise of Reagan and the New Democrats and the poisonous canard that there is no such thing as a universal public good.

The Universities of California and Florida, for example, didn’t charge tuition until the late 1960s; CUNY was free until 1976; and very-low-cost tuition was available at many public institutions into the 1980s. Even in 2000, when I started at the College of William & Mary, in-state tuition was $2,302 per year; the same liberal-arts education will set you back $17,434 this school year. (And that is before fees, books, and optional room and board.) No wonder Americans are in over $1.68 trillion of student debt. The average debtor with a degree from a public school is in hock for nearly $30,000.

But this catastrophe does not have to roll on. Free or simply low-cost college is, or was, the traditional position. And even during a pandemic that has exposed every necrotic point in American life, including in our higher education systems, we might still have a chance to return to it. Our society needn’t continue shoveling students into the gullet of rigged, world-ravaging markets.

The vision of college in Sustainable. Resilient. Free. (henceforth SRF) includes other reforms, principally student-debt forgiveness and a radical strengthening of faculty job protections. Warner emphasizes that it wouldn’t even cost that much. Harvard researchers estimate it would take about $79 billion per year to make all public colleges and universities free; by contrast, our present debt-leveraged, tuition-dependent Rube Goldberg machine that “subsidizes college attendance” costs the federal government $91 billion every year. Meanwhile, forgiving $1.68 trillion of debt (the majority of which is held by women, especially women of color) wouldn’t tally much more than the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which gave away $1.5 trillion to corporations and the wealthy, let alone the Bush-era revenue slashes (which Warner doesn’t even mention). Tax hikes on the rich would fund this, even if you add the extra higher-education funding Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both called for in their 2020 plans. How do we pay for it? The same way we pay for the Pentagon’s $740-billion 2021 budget. And debt abolition would be a huge economic stimulus. A 2018 analysis found that student-debt erasure would juice the US GDP by $100 billion over the next decade, reduce unemployment significantly, and have insignificant inflationary or deficit effects.

To his credit, though, Warner, a two-decade teaching veteran and the author of a recent classic of pedagogy, Why They Can’t Write (2018), is leery of defenses of education based primarily on economic utility or any other quantifiable measure. His argument is fundamentally humanist and democratic. SRF is grounded in a vision of the good life available to everyone, not just those lucky enough to be born wealthy. Refusing to make public college free isn’t just hobbling the economy, he suggests. It is also poisoning our souls and social bonds.

Warner traces our “problem of imagination” to the Reagan revolution and the hegemonic idea — dominant in both state policy and the cultural psyche — that free markets are the organizational basis of society. This market turn, and a concomitant mania for the privatization of goods and spaces, coincided with austerity for public institutions like universities, as Christopher Newfield demonstrates in The Great Mistake (2016). The same ideological process that led to a withdrawal of state funding and a reliance on donations and tuition at public colleges is, Warner argues, behind the degradation of other nominally public goods like health care and journalism.

Everything is a private commodity in the Long Reagan Era; college is a zone you negotiate to enter as a long-term investment in your future. Education builds careers, not democracy. College is big business, too. “Schools are not currently in the teaching and learning business,” Warner dryly observes. “They are machines meant to capture education-related revenue.” The football team is more important to the bottom line than whether students can write when they graduate.

Warner’s narrative of failure and disappointment is realistic: education as a path of upward mobility was only ever broadly available to white people, even after the cautious admissions reforms of the postwar era. But even as an ideal, as a possible future to strive for, things have fallen apart. A usually low-key, amiable writer, Warner boils here:

Please pardon my language, but if our public colleges and universities are supposed to serve as an ecosystem that provides access to economic opportunity regardless of the accident of your birth, this is some fucked-up shit. We have broken faith with Millennials and the members of Generation Z. The promise that hard work will translate into opportunities for education and prosperity is gone. And it isn’t the pandemic that killed it.

COVID-19 was the lit match; 40 years of austerity were the gasoline.


Warner argues that school rankings — the kind published in U.S. News & World Report — are largely to blame for the increases at elite institutions. Since the 1980s, families have pored over these reviews looking for amorphous measures of “prestige”’; meanwhile, institutions have found that raising tuition makes them more prestigious. And this isn’t just a problem at private universities. What one researcher calls “country-club public universities” (schools like UVA, Michigan, William & Mary, and UW-Madison) occupy their own exclusive tier, chasing Harvard and squabbling over out-of-state applicants who don’t need too much financial aid.

But Warner emphasizes what you wouldn’t realize from reading establishment media like The Atlantic or The New York Times: most students never set foot on the campus of an “elite” or “selective” school, whether country-club-public or completely private. The majority of American institutions are either open admissions or admit more than half of their yearly applicants. It makes little sense to treat selective schools as the norm, because all that does is create a gruesome playing field where schools vie for recognition and money. Warner argues instead for “thinking about public higher education as an entire interdependent ecosystem rather than a series of individual institutions.” Public higher education is collective “infrastructure,” not a private commodity sold by discrete entities. It makes no more sense to obsess over Yale or Oberlin than it does to only spend money on road repair in Beverly Hills.

Four decades of underfunding in public higher education have produced a cascade of bad schemes. Administrators have doubled down on what Warner calls “managing austerity,” particularly through a dystopian array of edtech interventions. Often these don’t work: witness the failure of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the early 2010s. Often they involve gratifying Silicon Valley — the NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, who has become influential peddling high-tech solutions, sees an inevitable future where universities partner with Apple and Facebook to deliver content. And often they’re downright creepy. The past decade has seen an explosion of what Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” to which Warner adds the subcategory “spy shit.” There is a panoply of systems for monitoring, tracking, controlling, and, if need be, punishing students. Under the guise of stopping cheating, we get software with Pynchonesque names like Proctorio, Honorlock, and Turnitin. We get cameras in our classrooms. We get programs that track where students’ eyes are moving. And they get the message: schools see them as revenue sources who are also potential troublemakers. No wonder American students report staggering levels of anxiety and depression. They live in the same necro-capitalist world as everyone else.

SRF also makes a point that would seem fairly obvious, but which doesn’t come up much in policy discussions: if college doesn’t put you in decades of debt, students can study subjects they find fascinating and meaningful instead of what they consider marketable. “Business” is far and away the most popular major of the 21st century, mostly because it is seen as the sure route to a decent income. The arts, the humanities, even the social sciences, meanwhile, are supposed to be financial dead ends — by now most students have absorbed the fiction (and it is a fiction) that studying art will leave you impoverished and unemployable. Granted, the United States has a deeply capitalist culture, and making college free wouldn’t alter this ideological constitution overnight. But re-rooting higher education in a humanist, social democratic vision would help begin extracting us from a nightmare world of markets and debt peonage: “A student’s major simply must mean more than a credential for a first job out of college,” argues Warner.

I cannot think of a more depressingly low bar for what students should be striving to achieve and experience while they’re in college. Rather than worrying about a student’s “qualifications,” institutions should be focused instead on their preparation for the challenges of life after graduation.


He also points out that ending tuition won’t be enough to save higher education — it must dovetail with labor reform, so that campuses aren’t relying on armies of burned-out adjuncts. What Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott call “the gig academy” would still be exploitative if it were free to undergraduates. Ironically, having a strong belief in education makes you more exploitable: Warner notes that a kind of “vocational awe” keeps people working materially terrible but socially beneficial jobs as adjuncts, as though faculty posts were “quasi-priesthoods with concomitant vows of poverty.” We buy into the mission, and administrators know that means you can pay us less.

It is hard to disagree with Warner’s claim that we already have a “post-tenure university.” By now only about a quarter of the professoriate has access to the tenure track, and ambitious managers are hacking away at this vanishing form of security. Tenure is a noble idea, but in the 2020s it is little more than a prize for a few elite scholars, and it makes no sense to organize mass faculty labor around fighting for it. Instead, Warner continues, we should advocate a return to true “shared governance” between faculty and admins, and reorient higher education’s mission around “teaching and learning,” which means creating robust labor protections for non-tenure-track professors as well as raising their pay. The 75 percent of us who are contingent, who teach the majority of classes, don’t need tenured allies so much as we do union comrades, and we’ve had enough of enchanted “callings” — we would like to have secure material lives while doing morally decent work.

Warner’s vision ultimately locates colleges and universities within a renewed social democratic state that makes a secure life available to everyone. Freed from the burdens of tuition and debt, students would be able to study whatever they find compelling, rather than what appears to promise a good paycheck. Released from grinding precarity, well-compensated teachers would be able to focus on their mission of guiding students toward meaningful lives; they’d be able to send their own children to college. No longer shackled by austerity or gripped by corporate management, the higher-ed ecosystem, that great web collecting and creating and organizing knowledge, would flourish. One of humanity’s birthrights — learning — would be a public treasure again, or for the first time.


Yet Warner’s closing optimism landed a little weakly for me. He reaffirms that “in many ways I’m hopeful, but the problems of the political economy stand in the way.” That’s quite the understatement as the crushing deprivation of the COVID-19 era unfolds. By November 2020, American colleges and universities had cut loose a 10th of their workers, with more slashes to come; students, meanwhile, find themselves needing more financial aid just when schools have less funding available and the state dawdles. In the face of this, the only way forward is to force administrators and legislators to listen to us, and that “us” has to be a militant, multidimensional labor movement comprising staff, faculty, and students. Asking politely hasn’t worked. Neither will polemics, manifestoes, or jeremiads — and Warner, to his credit, knows this.

Three ideological and material obstacles loom. First, as Warner realizes, many faculty consider themselves free-agent knowledge creators on the order of architects or graphic designers with their own practices, instead of as workers, as labor embedded in vast institutional structures. When you’ve invested years of your life and tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of dollars in a lofty idea of oneself as an intellectual, it can be difficult to realize you have more in common with the janitors who clean your classrooms than with the provost.

Second, there is the nasty fact that institutions can easily disrupt or destroy the careers of faculty who say things that powerful people dislike. Witness what happened to assistant professor Garrett Felber, a renowned historian who was on his way to tenure at the University of Mississippi until his habit of underscoring the institution’s past and present racism caught up to him — or rather, pissed off the wrong people. Felber is a scholar of race, racism, and incarceration; Ole Miss canned him for doing his job, the thing that universities’ Latin mottoes crow about: bringing the light of knowledge to bear on a fallen world. You can imagine what it’s like to work under these conditions. Faculty are frightened for good reason. We often muzzle ourselves, because even if dark-money organizations like Campus Reform didn’t exist to harass us, our own employers are quick to terminate. Unless you can get everyone into tenured positions (unlikely) or unions (better for the majority of teachers), there is little to stop schools — pressured by the right’s increasing suspicion of academia itself — from crushing outspoken faculty.

Still, I do not think that right-wing outrage stoked by players like Fox News, Campus Reform, and Donald Trump is the biggest problem in terms of American society’s orientation toward higher ed.

The core obstacle to sustainable, resilient, free college is Americans’ four-decade acquiescence to the dismantling of the public sphere. We have a seemingly bottomless ability to countenance astonishing wealth inequality, pervasive police violence, ruinous imperial war, climate crisis, mass incarceration, the commodification of every inch of existence, and now a public health catastrophe in the form of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans while generating new wealth for millionaires and billionaires. COVID-19 is a universal solvent, seeping into every social, economic, political, psychological, and physical relationship available to a person in modernity. The pandemic exposes every weak point, rotted fiber, and busted link in the chain of American life, whose infirmity had already long been clear if you were willing to look. We were a plutocracy backed by cops in body armor long before 2020 and the arrival of the coronavirus. Now 440,000 Americans are dead; more have been sickened and ruined with medical bills; our economy is collapsing into mass unemployment; millions are facing eviction and homelessness — and the response of our federal caretakers has been to toss everyone less than a couple thousand dollars.

And in the face of this — a long, deliberate, open destruction of social democracy carried out by both Republicans and Democrats — Americans have mostly been complacent. What Warner calls a naked “slow-motion sabotage” hasn’t moved many people. Even a mild, grandfatherly socialist, Bernie Sanders, was too much for our current political infrastructure. So where is the appetite for a massive public investment in a shared good going to come from? How many Americans are willing to fight — or even vote — for free public higher education? If the COVID-19 disaster can’t move us to stand up, what will? The response from ordinary people and our rulers alike has been to turn Bartleby: We would prefer not to.

As you have probably surmised by now, I am less hopeful than Warner. Nevertheless, I am not hopeless. History happens in weird ways, rarely at the speed of news cycles, and it is possible that the movement for free college — which has grown to the point where many of the (albeit unsuccessful) candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination wrote it into their campaign platforms — will become a wildfire political elites cannot ignore. It is possible that faculty can unionize, that they can form lasting bonds with students and staff activists and allied politicians, that they can wrest power from the managerial class. It is possible that our schools might one day organize themselves around the missions of teaching and learning instead of football and corporate donations. There are, after all, far fewer well-compensated administrators and legislators than there are parents, students, community leaders, staffers, and faculty — we outnumber them. Now is the time to fight on the basis of that numerical superiority, and of the fact — which we mustn’t forget — that we are right, that the privatizers and creditors are full of shit, and that sometimes the people secure what they are owed.


Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd on Twitter) lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California.