Book Review: "Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education," author John Warner dives into what he argues is the main driver behind the skyrocketing costs of higher education and proposes a solution for how higher education can survive. Focusing on the push for competition in higher education over the last 40 years, Warner's main contention in SRF is that higher education must be rethought as a public good, rather than a purely private good. "Using logic that wouldn't be out of place in Karl Marx's seminal work, 'Das Kapital,' Warner's 'diagnosis' of the current state of higher education has stuck with me," writes Alexander Skarr, who read the book and shared his opinions of its content with NASFAA. "Warner contends Reagan era policies that promoted competition have led to an unsustainable climate in higher education."

Alexander SkarrReviewed by Alexander Skarr, Financial Aid Counselor at Clayton State University 

Let's face it, college is expensive. At this point the sentiment is almost cliché. But it hasn't always been this way. In fact, the University of California System was tuition free until 1968. In his new book, "Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education" (henceforth abbreviated SRF), John Warner dives into what he argues is the main driver behind the skyrocketing costs of higher education and proposes a solution for how higher education can survive. Focusing on the push for competition in higher education over the last 40 years, Warner's main contention in SRF is that higher education must be rethought as a public good, rather than a purely private good.

Using logic that wouldn't be out of place in Karl Marx's seminal work, "Das Kapital," Warner's "diagnosis" of the current state of higher education has stuck with me. Warner contends Reagan era policies that promoted competition have led to an unsustainable climate in higher education. By treating higher education as a traditional "market" and students as consumers, we are now experiencing the logical conclusion of market forces. Fundamentally, in the system as it currently stands, colleges are in the business of enrolling students, not educating. While this may seem like a controversial statement, many of us working in higher education certainly know this to be true. I can still remember sitting in an undergraduate classroom, listening as my professor walked us through his disdain for having to serve as department chair and go to meetings about maximizing revenue even at the expense of the quality of education the school was providing.

Given the disinvestment of state governments in public higher education, schools rely more and more on tuition, fees, housing, and meal revenues to supplement their budgets. As such, the logic of capital necessitates that schools move to metrics that increase enrollments, which can be to the detriment of the education students receive. Most publicly, schools invest in nicer dorms, recreation facilities, and other amenities that look good on a brochure cover or website while allowing instructional spending to lag.

Warner's fundamentally Marxist analysis points out that the narrative of schools recklessly spending as the reason college is so expensive is simply not the case. Schools are adding amenities because they have been forced into a system where they must fiercely compete for student enrollment in a zero-sum game. Therefore, schools invest in amenities before education because market forces dictate it. The logic of the system we have built necessarily leads schools to those outcomes.

Higher education must be rethought as a public good. Warner uses the phrase "education as infrastructure" to embody this idea. The reasoning behind this sentiment is that a well-educated populace is beneficial to society as a whole, in the same way that roads and bridges benefit society by facilitating the flow of goods even if you personally don't drive on a specific road. Public opinion polling consistently finds infrastructure spending is popular among the majority of Americans. For Warner, education falls into the same realm.

One major hurdle we must overcome is that college is so often discussed in terms of return on investment, or ROI. I have been guilty of this myself when counseling students about reasonable student loan debt amounts. Warner argues, however, that reducing the value of a college degree to a simple ROI calculation misses the point entirely. Higher education is not just about how much money a student will be able to make post-graduation. Count me as one of the "soft-hearted dreamer(s)" that Warner mentions in his work, but the value of higher education, or any education at all, is in having a more informed populace capable of greater critical thinking and innovation. Reducing college to ROI turns higher education into a tool that only aims to serve capitalist interests and ignores many of the societal benefits that come out of students pursuing higher education.

This is not to say that I agree with everything Warner writes. As a nearly life-long wrestler, and someone married to a college athletics administrator, I disagree with Warner on the role of athletics in Higher Education, but that is far from the core thesis of the book. I will also admit that, for those who are perhaps casual readers or, like me, are staff working in higher education, Warner gets a bit too bogged down in the weeds in his discussion on how to fix professor compensation and tenure issues. I feel as though these sections lose a bit of the overarching through line of Warner's argument. And while Warner's more casual writing style makes SRF immensely readable, I think it can potentially affect his persuasiveness, as some readers may be turned off by his more relaxed tone throughout the book.

All this diagnosis may leave you asking, "Well what do we do?" If we believe Warner's analysis, as I tend to, schools must be tuition-free to remove them from the economic forces discussed previously that require them to focus on enrollment rather than education. No amount of tweaking the expected family contribution formula or doubling the maximum Federal Pell Grant can overcome the direct market forces we require colleges to exist within. Getting to this point will not be easy, and it almost certainly will not happen all at once, but by reconceptualizing higher education as a collective unit engaged in the mission of educating students, we can begin the work toward free public higher education. Warner cites that current federal spending on higher education subsidies is approximately 91 billion dollars, while it would cost approximately 79 billion dollars a year to make all public colleges tuition free. If we believe Warner's numbers to be accurate, it would be cost effective to attempt the type of overhaul he describes.

Ultimately, the value of Warner's work is in its diagnosis of the current state of affairs. By challenging readers to reimagine the principles and driving forces that undergird the institution of higher education, Warner allows us to rethink how it is organized. Even if a grand overhaul doesn't come about, readers can aim to guide policy decisions in a way that can allow the future of higher education to become more sustainable, resilient, and free.                                                                                                    

"Sustainable, Resilient, Free: The Future of Public Higher Education," by John Warner, Belt Publishing, Oct. 2020, pp. 160.                   


Alexander Skarr is a financial aid counselor at Clayton State University in Morrow, GA. Alex has worked in the financial aid field for five years as an outreach and education specialist, as well as a loan processor for state agencies, private, and public institutions. He earned bachelor's degrees in sociology/anthropology and political science and a master's degree in political science with a concentration in political theory from the University of Illinois-Springfield. 


Publication Date: 3/22/2022

Ben R | 4/25/2022 9:6:42 AM

Thank you for the clarification Alex. I read your response before but just didn't respond till now. Good dialogue here.

Peter G | 3/24/2022 6:18:34 PM

The author appears to be the same John Warner who contributes regularly to Inside Higher Ed. I enjoy most of his writing (including on this topic), but this isn't really his area of deep expertise imo, which arguably is mostly in the areas of teaching and the craft of writing, and not the economics of higher ed.

Responding to Alexander's comment, T&F is only one piece of "the revenue game." albeit a crucial piece. The underlying issue is that we refer to T&F as the "cost" of college (it is a key part of COA, after all) but it's actually the "price" of college, and only one revenue stream of many.

Changing the mechanism through which that tuition share is paid doesn't typically resolve the tension between costs and revenues, and those tend to grow over time.

Housing, similarly, has a "cost" component in terms of what it costs to provide it (and those costs have trended up over time for a range of reasons) as well as the "price" that is charged to students for that.

But in any case where a school has flexibility over a component of revenue, if there's a tension between overall costs and revenue, they are going to pivot to increase where they have the most flex to do so in budget and public perception. I could also name a few colleges that bet big on housing, and misjudged demand, and so housing then becomes a net negative at that school. And of course, even for the many schools that don't provide institutional housing, the cost of housing is generally up, so increased costs isn't only about gaming revenue.

But the larger picture is not a new tale in higher ed - go back 70 years and undergrad programs typically subsidized grad programs, then in the law boom increased law tuition often subsidized other areas of the college, and we've seen growth in "self-support" grad programs.

Alexander S | 3/24/2022 2:35:05 PM

Ben, thanks for your comment! When Warner talks about "free college" he is specifically pointing to not charging tuition and fees. Warner does actually spend a bit of time talking about on-campus room and board, but given the limitations of the review I wasn't able to touch on it. I believe I can sum up Warner's argument by saying that he views on campus R+B as a money making endeavor for schools, and points to many institution's decisions to reopen on campus housing in Fall 2020 citing the need for the revenue. Departing from Warner now, I would extend his logic to argue that if schools are no longer in the business of playing the revenue game, it would make it possible for colleges to provide R+B at a lower cost than they do now, given that they would not have to rely on it to increase revenues. Regarding off-campus housing, while I don't believe Warner speaks to it directly, I personally believe that is probably something that would exist outside of ED, or FSA's purview and probably would not be included in any first pass at a Higher Ed funding overhaul.

Ben R | 3/22/2022 10:25:36 AM

There is an important distinction between K-12 and higher education that often gets overlooked in the “public good” discussion:

Under K-12 taxpayers are only covering the direct cost of instruction and facilities for students between the ages of 5-18, not their room and board, transportation, and other outside costs, which are covered by their parents. However, under higher education, in addition to tuition and fees, the total cost of attendance includes the indirect costs (room and board, etc.) for students of any age from 18 on up, and a whole lot of graduate students (over half of all borrowing is by post baccalaureate students). Furthermore, as anyone who deals with PLUS or graduate loans knows, a large portion of this borrowing is for indirect cost, not tuition and fees, whether that has anything to do with the education or school or not. By saying all of higher education should be free, are we are saying room and board for a lifelong student that is 100 percent online is a public investment worthy of perpetual subsidy?

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