I hear about free college a lot in current political discourse. The price of a college degree is rising higher and higher every year, while wages are remaining more or less stagnant. Many offer a solution to this in the form of guaranteed free college. Under their ideal system, the government would offer payment of tuition for students. Examining the facts of this situation, however, show a very different solution.
There is no denying that there is a problem when it comes to the cost of tuition. Let is look at the facts.
According to the Department of Education, a year of college in 1980 cost on average $9,438. Today, it has grown over 260% at $23,872. In order to cover this increasing cost, more and more take out federally-backed student loans. Currently, total student loan debt in the US is over $1 trillion, and the average debt for a college senior is $25,500.
Why is this? The answer is basic economics.
The first explanation for this is the increase in enrollment. This is just basic supply and demand. As the demand for higher education increased, so did prices. This is the basic effect of the market. However, that is only one factor.
Since the government guarantees loans to students who do not have the money to go to college, colleges raise their prices above market value and maintain the same enrollment. People who cannot afford to go will be guaranteed the money and be able to go. The government covers this all. This is great for the universities; they get more money. Yet, for the students, they graduate with debt. And as time goes on, colleges push the prices up more and more, little by little, and students just take out larger loans. And then they graduate with even more debt.
The policy of student loans is a total failure. It has driven the costs up and put students in massive debt. As time goes on, more and more people will have to default on their loans, as they cannot pull together the money to pay for it and their other expenses.
But what about free college? Forget about temporarily covering the price, what if the government paid for it all outright at no cost to the students? Would this not solve the situation.
Well, let us take a look at the cost.
According to the Department of Education, undergraduates spend a total of $62,585,357 each year on 4-year plans. According to Pew, the federal government spent $72.2 billion a year on higher education in 2013, accompanied by another $81.8 billion invested by state and local governments (as a total, not individually). The government already covers the cost of 4-year college and then some on grants and other financial aid, not including student loans. Offering tuition free college would be more than doable for the government financially.
So what, then, is the issue with free college? There are, unfortunately, a few.
First, a free college degree lowers the value of that degree. This can be seen with high school diplomas over the last century. In 1940, only roughly 8-29% of people 25 years and older had completed 4 years of high school. by 1991, That had increased to 65%-80%. With this trend came a decrease value of a high school diploma. When the amount of undergraduates receiving college degrees goes up, the value of that degree goes down. Take note that this does not include the value of higher level degrees that would not be covered by the government’s free tuition.
Second, government intervention in programs such as universities would vastly lower the quality (and raise prices for programs not made free), as seen with its effect on healthcare, the housing market, the VA, school lunches, the GI Bill, and anything else you can name.
How would lower income people pay for college, then? Should they not be given a chance?
Simple: The same way you pay for food, cellphones, televisions, cars. The higher education market right now is a bubble. When it gets involved in any service, prices go up, quality goes down, and bubbles are created. A mess will ensue. As less and less people become interested in spending a life in debt, attendance rates will go down. After years of prices being artificially inflated by irresponsible government policies, the bubble will burst. If the government stops guaranteeing loans, prices would go back down. There would still be a marketplace for college education, and prices would reflect that market. Competition will restore the market. Competition in an open market guarantees that quality goes up while prices go down.
Because it is imperative for governments not to intervene in markets, despite the fact that it is already affordable based on the current federal, state and local budgets, owing to the fact that college tuition is artificially inflated, the government should not offer tuition free college to undergraduate students. Basic economics and an understanding of the history of government subsidies determines this conclusion without doubt. College prices would be better off without government interference.
Fiscal Federalism Initiative. “Federal and State Funding of Higher Education.” A Changing Landscape. Pew Charitable Trusts, 11 June 2015. Web. 03 May 2017.
Ginder, Scott A., and Janice E. Kelly-Reid. “Staff in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2002, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Faculty, 2002-03.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2013): n. pag. United States Department of Education, Dec. 2013. Web. 3 May 2017.
Snyder, Thomas D. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Education, 1993. Jan. 1993. Web. 3 May 2017.
United States. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Average Undergraduate Tuition … Control of Institution: 1963-64 through 2012-13. N.p., 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.
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Weisenthal, Joe. “If You’re Going To College, You Must See This Chart Of Tuition Growth Vs. Wage Growth.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 28 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 May 2017.