Springing the case for free college

By Hannah Nelson

I would have bet money on seeing pigs fly before ever hearing about a free college existing in the United States. Founded in 1917, Deep Springs College lies 28 miles into the California desert. Every student receives a full scholarship, and there is no application fee.

The all-male, two-year college runs on the basis of self-governance, which includes student input in the hiring of their professors. With a four-to-one student faculty ratio – compared to the 18-to-one here – and a population of fewer than 30 students, it gives new meaning to small class size. The undergraduate population of the University is in the realm of 20,500, a number just shy of being equivalent to 790 times that of Deep Springs. One floor in a UMass residence hall holds more students than the ultra-small liberal arts college.

The only hitch, if it can even be called that, is that all students participate in a minimum of Boardinghouse Crew work. Essentially, this measures up to doing chores like washing dishes and mopping floors. The work it takes to run the school doesn’t end there, with students working as cooks, ranchers, farmers and more.

It’s been nicknamed “the Cowboy College” for a reason. It sounds positively transcendental, and I think it’s safe to say Massachusetts natives Emerson and Thoreau would have approved.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But, many college students carry part or even full- time jobs through college as it is, so it seems more than a fair trade. Sweetening the deal is that many graduates transfer to Ivy League schools.

It sounds terribly ironic to go from free to the sphere of some of the country’s priciest, but two years of an Ivy is equivalent in price to four years in a public college. According to the Deep Springs website, the two years are valued at a cumulative $100,000.

To be fair, by reading the anecdotes from the student life/downtime section of the website it is hard to get the impression that Deep Springs is all work and no play. According to the school’s website, a student named Marc “once attempted to build a fertility goddess using 97 condoms and plaster of Paris but was foiled by mitigating circumstances.” Sounds like average college life to me.

One of the first thoughts about Deep Springs is, “what kind of internet scam is this?” But it is no scam. It is an honest to goodness free college. Then why isn’t its existence better known? The answer: it doesn’ have to.

Deep Springs has received some high profile attention in the past, including features by the New Yorker, NPR, and Vanity Fair. After all, who needs publicity when ‘free’ is in the description? The college has no problem filling enrollment, turning away seventy percent of applicants every year.

More importantly, there is a question that begs to be asked. Why aren’t there more schools like Deep Springs?

For one, it would knock some relevancy out of the student loans business. Debt-free college students? It’s blasphemous. That is, of course, if all colleges were free, which is a wild hope born of an even wilder stretch of the imagination. Given the successes of the graduates, why aren’t there more colleges like this? No demand? A lack of funding?

None of the answers seem to measure up as decent excuses. However, college is becoming increasingly more about the degree than the education. I couldn’t count how many times I’ve heard someone else, or said myself, in fits of frustration, I just want to get my degree and get out. How much truth is really in these statements? If many a truth is said in jest, then many truths are said at the brink of over-caffeinated exhaustion?

Is the lost love of learning in this country all to be blamed on the need to succeed? Are degrees and grade point averages more valued than the hard work, or not-so-hard work, it took to get them?

It is even present in the education debates that happen on the national level and in the proposals to make education more accessible. Too often are the reasons given in favor not for the sake of the education. Instead, it has become for the sake of where the education will get students in the monetary scheme of becoming productive members of society.

What then is the place of the free college in the U.S.? Is it valued for more for the price tag or the quality of education? There is no reason why the two can’t coexist, and I would be willing to bet that Deep Springs graduates would agree.

Hannah Nelson is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]