Free College?

Free College?

Free College?

A look at the notion of free college.

The cost of college has increased considerably since I was a student. Back then, college was expensive but it was still possible for students of modest means to go to  a good school and graduate with a modest amount of debt. That is, in fact, what I did. Now that I am a professor, things are different: college is far more expensive (even factoring in inflation) and students are often burdened with crushing debt. In some cases this debt is due to poor decision making on the part of the student. In many cases it is due to a combination of the high cost of college and poor economic times.

Not surprisingly, some have suggested that the public higher education system follow the model of the K-12 education system. To be specific, it has been suggested that college should be free. While this certainly would initially appeal to parents and students, it is rather important to consider what is meant by "free" here.

In one sense, K-12 public education is free. That is, the students are not charged to attend school and the parents do not receive specific bills from the schools. In another sense, K-12 education is not free. After all, someone has to pay for the buildings, buses, salaries and so on. Those someones are, of course, people like me and (most likely) people like you. We pay for the schools through various taxes and various other means. As such, the free education is not really free. Rather, what "free" means in this context is that the cost is shifted from the students and parents to the whole population of people who pay the taxes and such used to fund the schools. That is, we have what some folks would regard as the socialization of education. While there has been an increased push towards privatization of education via voucher proposals and such, few have advocated removing the public funding of public education. The usual concern has been about where the public money is funneled.  However, we have generally had a collective agreement that public funding of K-12 education is a public good worth funding, albeit in rather unequal ways.

Following the K-12 model, free public college would be free in one sense and not free in another. That is, the students and parents would not be specifically billed by the schools and thus the education would be free. However,  someone would have to pay for all the campuses, salaries and so on and those someones would, once again, be people like me and (most likely) you.

The main benefit of shifting to "free" public higher education, is that the shift in cost from the students/parents would presumably allow more people to attend college and would, obviously, allow them to graduate without any debt (at least from the cost of education). While there is considerable debate about the value of college education (and whether or not everyone should go to college) it does seem reasonable to think that a college degree is generally a plus. Also, it would certainly be advantageous for students to graduate without facing the burden of education debt (although they would still face non-academic debt).

The most obvious concern about "free" public education is that funding it would obviously require replacing the income that was once generated by students/parents paying for school. This would most likely mean that the cost would be largely spread across the general population of taxpayers. That is, while parents and students would pay less than before, everyone would have to pay more to allow for "free" college.  Also worth considering is the fact that making college free would increase college enrollment, thus increasing the cost to the taxpayers relative to the current system (which does include some funding of public colleges/universities).

One moral concern is whether or not this shift in costs would be fair to people who did not attend college or send their children to college. However, the arguments in favor of "free" K-12 education could be modified a bit and pressed into service here. Likewise, arguments against "free" K-12 education could be modified a bit and used to argue against this. Naturally, new arguments could be forged against "free" college education because of the differences between college education and K-12 education.

Since I greatly value education and think that it is a public good, I would tend to favor "free" college n the same grounds that I favor "free" K-12 education. I would, of course, have to accept the need to put my money where my values are and be willing to pay more to allow "free" college, even though my college days are long past and I have no children. However, I obviously do not speak for everyone and the question of whether the public good generated by "free" college education would be worth the cost to the public.

Returning to the practical matter of cost, one way that the decrease in revenue would be addressed is by (ironically) reducing (or at least not increasing) enrollment. After all, rather than generating extra income each student would generate only extra cost.  While this approach would help offset the lost income, there would need to be a system of rationing education. Currently, education is distributed primarily based on wealth (and to a much lesser extent merit). That is, the ability to pay is the main selecting factor for who goes to college. When the cost of school is taken out of the matter, then another selection system will be needed, especially when "free" college would probably entail that many more people would want to go to college. While the system used might be fair and just, this seems unlikely-especially because of what already occurs in the K-12 system. In any case, making college "free" would thus not seem to broaden the access to college. Unless, of course, college is made "free" and the loss of income is not countered by reducing or maintaining enrollment.

If college were made "free" and enrollment was not reduced or kept the same, then schools would obviously need to grow enough to handle the influx of students. This would seem to have two possible results. The first is that the citizens would need to pay more for this growth. This would raise, once again, the question of whether the increased cost would be worth the gain (if any) for the general good.  The other is that resources would need to be spread ever thinner. For example, my typical class might go from 35 students to 140 (or 350) as demand surged. Or, of course, both would probably happen: people would pay more while resources are spread even thinner. Naturally, online classes could help with this, but there would still be questions about the quality of such massive education systems.

It is worth noting that even if public education was free, then private colleges and universities would still not be free. While this might initially hurt them (why pay to go to Marietta College when the University of Maine is free?), if public education becomes rationed or diluted, then private schools could still do quite well. After all, people with adequate money sometimes chose private K-12 education over the "free" public education. There is also the fact that, for example, an expensive degree from Harvard would be worth far more than a "free" degree from a public school and thus paying for education could still be a good investment.

While "free" college" is an idea worth considering, it must always be remembered that "free" just means that the cost is shifted, not that there is no cost. 

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