Which of the following inspires more trust?
Free* education (*if you meet certain criteria and can prove it)
From a student perspective, the answer is obviously a. From the perspective of a tax-phobic legislator, the answer is probably b. And therein lies the issue.
I’ve read a few thoughtful pieces recently about why “Gen Z’ adults are frustrated with current policies, and don’t trust existing institutions to look out for their interests. There’s no shortage of likely contributing factors; Annie Lowrey’s piece in the Atlantic is particularly good on this. Costs of starting out in adult life – first car, first home, college degree — have escalated much more quickly than salaries have. Elections are tilted through gerrymandering, private funding, and the electoral college, among other things. Basic rights on which people have counted in planning their lives can be revoked whenever a half-dozen people feel like it, precedent be damned.
Yes to all of those, but I’d add one that often goes undiscussed: pernicious complexity.
Compare “free high school” to “free college.” In most cases, students of a given age qualify for free high school by living in its district. Yes, there are “magnet” schools and specialized schools, but there’s almost always a general-purpose school available separate from those. Some of those schools are more respected than others, for a series of reasons that any competent sociologist could rattle off at a moment’s notice, but they’re free. They’re free to the rich and they’re free to the poor.
This past academic year, school lunches at The Girl’s high school were free to all students. That meant nobody had to produce documentation to show that they needed it. Simply being a student in the school was enough to allow you to pick up a sandwich, an apple, and some milk at the cafeteria. Because it was simple, students took the school up on it. And the students who would have qualified for “free lunch” under the old program, and had to live with the stigma around it, were suddenly spared the stigma. If everyone has lunch provided, then you’re no different than anybody else.
Free college, by contrast, comes with asterisks. Depending on the program, those asterisks may include income caps, need for documentation, specific enrollment status (i.e.full-time), field of study, or town of residence, among other things. Run afoul of any of those, or find yourself unable to prove that you don’t, and you don’t get the benefit.
That kind of complexity has its defenders. They argue that resources are limited, and in order to keep costs down, we should address help only to those who need it the most. In a vacuum, that sounds like a reasonable argument.
But if you’ve found yourself excluded from a benefit that would have really helped, your first thought isn’t usually “oh, well, I guess I was wrong.” It’s usually somewhat saltier than that. Often, political resentment is channeled toward the program itself. (“Must be nice…”) Worse, demands for proof are often insurmountable even for people who do fall within the parameters. As a result, too little help is given, and people develop a certain cynicism about the programs.
Gen Z has encountered a bumper crop of asterisks, whether in the form of cell phone deals, student financial aid, or political outcomes. To the extent they’re wary, they’ve learned to be wary. Wariness is a rational response to half-truths.
My plea to policymakers is to remember the virtue of simplicity. I don’t mind if some kid attends public school who could have afforded a private one. Heck, I wouldn’t mind if Bill Gates had a library card. These are not problems to be solved. If anything, keeping folks with resources present in public institutions helps ensure that those institutions are maintained well. As the adage goes, programs for the poor become poor programs. Universalism is a feature, not a bug. If we get cross-class interaction in our public institutions, that seems like a good way to cultivate democracy.
Asterisks in cell phone contracts may be a fact of life. But asterisks in access to education shouldn’t be.