There’s been a lot of talk about free college tuition since Bernie Sanders started campaigning on the idea. From purely a campaign strategy standpoint, the idea is genius. It helps draw young voters who don’t want massive debt, Generation X-ers who would prefer not to have to front out a lot of money for their kids to go to college without massive debt, and your normal crowd screaming for “free everything!”
However, there are a lot of problems surrounding the idea of “free college.”
First, free college isn’t free, it simply shifts costs from students to taxpayers and caps tuition at zero. That tuition cap limits college spending to whatever the public is willing to invest. But it does not change the cost of college, or what institutions actually spend per student. If the past is any guide, that cost will continue to grow, and an influx of federal money may lead profligate administrators to spend even more. Enrollments will also increase, further multiplying the cost of free college.
The key question, then, is what happens if public generosity does not keep pace with rising college costs, increases in demand, or both? Barring a drastic improvement in efficiency, tuition-free colleges won’t have the resources to serve additional students without compromising the quality of their offerings.
As progressive advocates of free college are so eager to point out, public funding hasn’t kept up with such changes in the past. For instance, California has the cheapest community college fees in the nation. During the recession, enrollments boomed and the state budget for higher education took a hit. Unable to raise additional revenue through a tuition increase, California’s community collegesturned away 600,000 students.
A national push for tuition-free college would strain public budgets even further, leading to shortages rather than increased access. And because middle and upper-income students will gobble up many of the free public slots, rationing will hurt those who need access the most.
There’s another aspect besides the obvious cost.
Currently, the federal government exacts remarkably little direct control over colleges. The Department of Education’s influence effectively stops at high school. This means colleges can function somewhat independently, though almost all are beholden to their accreditation bodies for something.
Folks, this is a good thing.
As things stand, colleges cater to different people in different ways. For example, an historically black college or university has a tradition of minority support that’s often attractive to black students. Princeton, Harvard, and the other Ivy League schools are known for a focus on top-notch academics that will serve you well after graduation.
Students currently have their choices of where to apply, and if they’re accepted by multiple schools, they have a choice of where to attend. The fact that colleges aren’t particularly standardized is actually a good thing.
However, if the government is paying for it, you’d better believe there will be some effort down the road to dictate what colleges do. Don’t have enough classes on transsexual literature? No funding. You don’t want to make incoming freshman take sensitivity training? No funding.
Of course, too many of those who want free college tuition, this sounds like a feature, not a bug. Unfortunately, they’re not thinking about the fact that their guys and gals won’t always be in power. The other side gets to play too, after all.
How about a requirement that all college dorms keep out all visitors of the opposite gender? What about a requirement that all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students be in separate dorms? Maybe a college class on the evils of socialism be required? Maybe the government decides to not pay for certain majors, like women’s studies?
The pendulum swings back and forth, and eventually it’ll get to a point where the “free college for everyone” crowd are a bunch of radicals way, way on the other end of the arc.
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