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You Will Pay for "Free" College

Politicians like to pander to interest groups by promising them supposedly free things: free medical care, free food, free cell phones, and so on. And since millions of your fellow young Americans go to college, naturally you hear politicians promising free higher education.

“Elect me,” say such politicians, “and I will relieve you of the horrible and unfair burden of paying for your education.” Lately they’ve tried to disguise their pandering by claiming that they just want to “strengthen the economy,” since young people with college debts aren’t able to buy houses, cars, or other big-ticket items.

“So” (such politicians continue) “by relieving students of having to pay, we will at the same time stimulate the economy while enabling many more young Americans to have ‘access’ to college, which will mean a better educated and more productive labor force.” What’s not to like?

Two things, actually.

Hidden Trade-Offs

One of the most elementary lessons of economics is that nothing is really free, because we always have to give up something, if only time and energy, to get anything. That is, we must make trade-offs: to get A, we have to give up B.

Therefore, college education cannot be free. All politicians can do is shift the costs from you the student to other people—the taxpayers—while hiding behind false “public interest” rationales.

Almost everyone understands that free college is an impossibility but clamor for it anyway.

Moreover, making college “free” doesn’t just shift the burden of paying for it; it also has a number of bad side effects that both increase the cost and decrease the value of college education. How so?

When people spend their own money, they carefully decide what goods and services are most important to them, then find the seller that offers the best value for the dollar.

In the days before the federal government got into the business of subsidizing “access” to college (which began in earnest during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency), relatively few Americans thought that higher education was worthwhile, but those students who did strove to qualify academically, while their families strove to have the money needed to pay for it.

I choose the word “strove” deliberately. When you have to strive for things, you value them much more than if those things are given to you at little or no cost. Just think about the difference between “free” public housing and the way poor people usually maintain houses they own. Public housing projects are notorious for becoming decrepit and dangerous, whereas poor neighborhoods are much more livable.

Low-Grade College Life

In higher education, you no longer have to strive. The government has made college loans so easy to get that hardly anyone needs to strive financially these days. And because many colleges have lowered their standards in order to enroll the greatest number of students, there’s little need for academic striving either.

The results have been horrible.

As hordes of increasingly unprepared, unmotivated, and disengaged students have been lured into our colleges, most of these institutions have relaxed their academic standards and requirements to keep the kids happy. That’s why so many of your fellow students can graduate these days with frivolous courses on Lady Gaga, Zombies in Popular Media, and How to Watch TV, but don’t need to take Shakespeare, calculus, economics, or study the American Founding.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa cite some disappointing statistics in their book Academically Adrift. After studying a huge amount of data from student scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is a highly regarded test of cognitive abilities), they found that forty-five percent of the students showed no gain in cognitive abilities after two years in college and thirty-six percent showed no gain after four. In short, the students had not improved their basic skills in reading and thinking. No wonder so many employers say they’re not satisfied with the abilities of today’s college graduates. There’s little need for much academic striving because government policies to promote “access” have made it so easy to get into college and coast along to a degree.

Lower educational quality and results—these are the hidden costs of subsidizing college. Those costs will increase if we make it free.

Another cost is the epidemic of credential inflation we’re suffering. It used to be the case that very few careers were closed to people unless they had a college degree. But because government has so oversold higher education, the labor market is now glutted with people holding college credentials; consequently, employers have reacted by raising the educational requirements for applicants.

Today a great many jobs that don’t call for any advanced study or skills beyond those of the typical high school student are now blocked off unless you have a college diploma.

It’s a heavy cost that so many young Americans must devote four or more years and borrow tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes much more) to get a degree just so they won’t be screened out from easy, low-paying jobs. It’s also a cost to the nation that many poor people are shut out of consideration for work they could do competently just because they don’t have a college degree.

Free Education Is Expensive

And there’s one more cost to note: the government’s policies for promoting and subsidizing higher education have made it so much more expensive. By unleashing a flood of easy money for college, the government broke down the financial discipline schools used to have in the days when students and families were spending their own money.

One of the country’s strongest critics of easy money to finance college, Professor Richard Vedder, writes here, “[F]ederal student financial assistance is more a cause than a consequence of rising college costs,” and links to an excellent paper published by his research center showing that college costs could not have risen so fast over time without the government’s financial aid programs.

The waste and extravagance on many campuses, the profusion of useless administrative positions, the decline of faculty teaching loads, the enormous compensation for presidents—it’s all due to the fact that college officials no longer need to strive to remain affordable.

This problem of weak fiscal discipline among college officials will only get worse if politicians make college “free.”

Politicians can’t really make anything free. They can and often do force other people to bear the costs, however. When they do so, they undermine the incentives of consumers and producers, leading to higher costs and lower quality. That’s just as true about college education as anything else.


George Leef is Director of Research at the Pope Center and the author of Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement (2005). He has published widely, with articles and reviews appearing in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Regulation, the Christian Science Monitor, the Detroit News, the (Raleigh) News & Observer, the Cato Journal, and other publications. He has testified before committees in the U.S. House of Representatives and the legislatures of Michigan and North Carolina and has made numerous TV and radio appearances.


Complement with John Zmirak on the religious believer's campus survival guide, Jane Clark Scharl on the "wrong side of history" myth, and Russell Kirk on the purpose of the liberal arts

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