Three Problems With Making College Free

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 20 2013 3:12 PM

Three Problems With Making College Free

Aaron Bady recently did a piece calling for a return to the vision of free public higher education, embracing the slogan that if we're charging these high tuition fees then these "public" institutions aren't really public at all.

I see three big problems with this idea.

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The first big problem is the one Matt Bruenig highlights in an excellent and detailed post. Increasing the level of subsidy available to four-year degree-granting institutions would be a wildly regressive step. The student population at such institutions is disproportionately affluent, and was disproportionately affluent back when college tuition was cheaper. Recent increases in college tuition have largely shielded the small number of students from poor families. Both today and back in "the good old days" the overwhelmingly barrier that kids with poor parents face to attending four-year colleges isn't tuition, but low college admissions test scores. We can debate the origins of the test score gap, but it is what it is. Most poor kids can't get into a four-year college, and those who can get a pretty good financial deal.

The second big problem, however, is that I think we should get more cynical than Bruenig does. If the level of subsidy were increased enough to eliminate tuition, the faculty and administrators of public universities would still thirst for more money. A logical place to raise the money would be—tuition. After all, a college degree is a valuable commodity. And the kids in college are mostly from families with above-average incomes. Having eliminated tuition, the tuition would simply come back. In exchange, you'd get more tenure-track faculty, more administrators, more weird perks for university presidents, nicer facilities, etc.

The third and most fundamental problem is simply that it's hardly as if the university sector is the only branch of education that might plausibly want more money. My ranking, in order of educational institutions to spend money on, would go like this:

  • Preschool.
  • Community colleges.
  • High-poverty elementary schools.
  • High-poverty high schools.
  • Four-year colleges.

And here's the thing. I think that ranking is probably pretty uncontroversial even among the sort of liberals who also want to increase subsidies to four-year colleges. You want to direct funds at under-resourced institutions, and to areas where you get a high bang for your buck. You can call this a "false choice" if you like, but the fact is that making high-quality preschool broadly available will be expensive. Getting community colleges up to snuff will be expensive. Addressing funding disparities in the K-12 system will be expensive. The case for reallocating funds away from four-year colleges and toward more pressing educational needs is reasonably strong. At a minimum, given that four-year colleges already spend a lot of money we should ask them to try to do more with what they have while directing new funds at other priorities.

But I think we should loop this back around to where we started. I agree with Bady that there's an important sense in which the best-known public institutions of higher education aren't public. But it isn't that they aren't free. National Parks aren't free. But they're still public institutions. Because they're open to the public. Community colleges are also open to the public. But schools that only let you in if you have high SAT scores—whoever owns them and whatever they charge—aren't public in this sense. And in a world where the cost of financing health care and retirement for an aging society is pressuring public budgets, I'd make them stand behind other more broadly public forms of education for money.

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