The Illusion of “Free” College by Daniel Kopp

For many students thinking of attending college, ever-inflating tuition costs and thoughts of burdensome post-college debt prevent them from even beginning to achieve their academic goals. As a result,cries for tuition-free higher education have become deafening in recent years, an idea which has been popularized by high-profile progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Across the country, younger Americans are flocking to leftist politicians promising a free college education to anyone that wants one. These politicians will even go so far as to say that access to higher education should be a “free” for every American. We need our generation to understand the misconceptions about tuition-free higher education.

To quote the famed free-market economist Milton Freidman, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” To put it simply if it’s free, there’s going to be strings attached. Leftist politicians love to tout their idea of universally free higher education – it makes a good headline – but they fail to mention their plans to pay for it. Since the politicians choose to lie to the American people, we must do the digging on our own. Before we introduce a monumental program like this into the federal sphere, let’s look at programs that have already been implemented in individual states.

Currently 17 states have some form of “free college” programs across the country, the most recent and most comprehensive being in the state of New York. In 2017, New York state implemented a program called the Excelsior Scholarship to help eligible lower and middle class students attend state schools for free. After the announcement of the program, Governor Cuomo’s spokesperson said, “Governor Cuomo is a national champion for college affordability…We are proud of our record and committed to providing a high quality affordable college education to all New York students.” Very modest, wouldn’t you say? Despite his office being committed to an affordable college education “to all New York students,” a report by the Center for an Urban Future in 2018 showed that 43,513 out of the 63,599 students that applied for the Excelsior Scholarship were denied, a whopping 68% rejection rate. One of the biggest issues with tuition-free college is the selectivity process. With so many applicants and a finite amount of resources to handle them, it’s no surprise that the majority of applicants were denied. It’s basic economics. Governor Cuomo and Bernie need a refresher course on the principle of supply and demand. Another report about the Excelsior program revealed that only 3.2% of all 633,543 undergraduates in New York state benefited from the Excelsior program. Not only that, but the price tag of implementing this scholarship was roughly $163 million dollars after one year. $163 million to help only 3.2%. If we scale that figure to 100% of all undergraduates and the estimated cost would be over $5,000,000,000. Yes, that’s nine zeroes. For a single year. Remember also, this is only the price tag for implementation in a single state. There is just simply not enough state and federal money to provide a high quality education to every student that wants one without hiking taxes to a suffocating rate. It would be economically impossible and ruinous for the state of New York and the rest of the country to implement a universal free college system.

Another glaring issue with free college is the relationship between the amount a student pays towards their education and their graduation rate. Countries around the globe and states in the US that have free higher education systems have noticeably lower graduation rates compared to countries and states that charge tuition. It makes sense if you think about it for more than a minute. When a students sees their tuition bill or reads the terms of their student loan, they truly understand the weight of their decision. Students will work harder and be more committed to their education knowing that each credit hour is costing them money out of their own pocket, not the governments or the taxpayers. According to Forbes, the average dropout rate at a tuition-free community college is a staggering 47%. However at a four year private, for-profit institution, the dropout rate is just 17%. Schools with the lowest cost of attendance have some of the lowest graduation rates in the country. It’s clear that the less an individual pays to attend a higher education institution, the more likely they are to dropout. So why would it be appropriate for taxpayers to pay for a student to earn half their degree and then dropout? How does that benefit society? While obviously not all students with low or free tuition dropout, the percentage of those who do compared to full-paying students is something to consider before implementing free tuition programs.

When considering implementing such an expansive program in the United States, we need to just look at the facts. As you can see, universal tuition-free higher education would be economically and culturally ruinous for our country. Young conservatives need to arm themselves with the inarguable facts to effectively defend their beliefs and educate those around them.

Daniel is a new writer from Miami University. Follow him on Twitter

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