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Sykes: 'Free' Tuition a Bailout of Failing Universities

Written By: James Wigderson  |  Posted: Wednesday, August 31st, 2016


            WTMJ radio talk show host Charlie Sykes said proposals for free college are "a flat-out income transfer bailout."

            "It's a massive transfer of billion of dollars from the taxpayers, many of whom don't have college educations," said Sykes, the author of Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education coming out Tuesday. "It'll encourage more students to make poor educational choices. And if history is any guide, what it will do is, it will actually remove the pressure on the higher education complex to reform itself."

            "I do think we're at the moment people are asking tough questions about the cost and the value, and that higher education might have this response: you have a massive bailout, it's a freebie," Sykes said. "And the result will be, as it's been in the past, with the infusion of more money, they will use this as an excuse to increase their spending."

            "Part of this book deals with, why is college so expensive. You have the massive administrative bloat. You have the massive building bloat, the amount of money that they've spent," Sykes said. "Well, the only way you're going to dial that back is by forcing colleges to become fiscally prudent. This huge massive free tuition bailout basically let's them off the hook."

            The author of Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education and The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption In Higher Education explained why after 20 years he decided to go "back to school" and look at the costs of higher education in his new book. "I can't pass up the chance to say I told you so on this one," Sykes said. "I think the attention being paid to the higher education bubble, the fact that you have $1.3 trillion in student debt, more controversy about the cost of higher education and the declining value of college education."

            "So I really thought, let's go back 28 years later and say why did everything I wrote about in Profscam got worse," Sykes said. "And is there any chance that this time it's going to be different?"

            Sykes said there is no right answer about whether parents should put their kids in college. "I think they need to be smarter consumers. They need to ask more questions about it," Sykes said.  "What's not smart is going $100,000 in debt to get a degree in flower arrangement. What's not smart is basically taking out the equivalent of a house mortgage for a degree that may not signify anything."

            "Number one, not everybody needs to go to college," Sykes said. "Not everyone needs a four-year degree. A college-for-all mantra is a delusion."

            "Number two, if you are going to college, I think you ought to ask tough questions about whether you are actually going to get your money's worth in return for exorbitant tuition," Sykes said. "I think for the first time in a long time parents are willing to ask that question."

            Sykes said that in the book he explains how colleges were able to raise tuition well above the rate of inflation. "Parents were willing to pay. They were willing to pay whatever it took because all that mattered was getting that degree because that degree was the entrée into the middle class," Sykes said. "I think that more and more parents and students are starting to be skeptical. Okay, is this degree actually worth what you're asking me to pay for it?"

            Sykes said that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is on the "beginning of the right track" with his proposal for continuing the four-year tuition freeze at University of Wisconsin system schools. "There's two things. Number one, there's the tuition freeze. Number two, actually having performance metrics. Now I'm going to be very interested in seeing what performance metrics they come up with and whether there's any consequences with that," Sykes said.

            "I would urge Walker to go bigger and bolder," Sykes said. "Don't just tinker around the edges with this. Do what they've done at Arizona State University (in the Global Freshman Academy), where basically they said the whole freshman year you can take this online. You can take these massive online open courses."

            Sykes also expressed support for Walker's suggestion of a three-year college degree. "I mean if Gov. Walker stood up and said, 'We need to make UW more affordable and distinctive, and so henceforth we're no longer going to require four years to get a college degree. We're going to offer three-year degrees.' Now this is radical, and it would challenge the business structure of the university, but then you're really starting to shake up the status quo," Sykes said.

            Sykes said he was excited about the launch of his new book. "It gives me a chance to not talk about presidential politics but something I actually enjoy talking about," Sykes said.

            James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based education reporter for Watchdog. He is also an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman, an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, and blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children. James can be reached at

© 2016 Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity 

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