While I am certain this will come as no shock to faithful AO/FCF readers, there is no such thing as free college.
Some candidates and left-leaning think tanks are proposing legislation that would provide free college in the United States. What follows below is not so much a commentary about any specific legislative proposal -- all of which would be absurdly unworkable -- but more about the use of such language to put forward new and unsustainable burdens on the American taxpayer.
Many young voters faced with the staggering cost of a four-year education are looking to such proposals with delight. After all, why would they not be favorable? We are now two generations deep as young Americans are victimized by rising college tuition costs as they increase much faster than inflation. The college debt burden is hobbling the ability of our new working generation to get a start, buy a home, or live the quality of life they wore promised when they went to college. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that indentured servitude is back with a vengeance as young Americans feel no choice but to sell themselves into debt in order to obtain a promise for a better future.
Yet tackling the realities should not mean dealing in mirages. The siren song of free college is music to the ears of many college students, but in reality is a cynical fraud. Fueling the education bubble with free cash will simply serve to make an expensive problem even more financially ruinous for Americans.
Let's be openly clear about this. There is no such thing as free college. The day such a proposal is enacted; the colleges will still open their doors. The faculty and professors will still show up to collect their check for teaching. The lights will still turn on. The building will still be heated, or air-conditioned. Campus public safety officers will still show up. The buses will still run. Everything colleges pay for to educate their students will still be paid for by someone. College will not be free; the costs will merely shift.
One recent proposal -- more realistic -- plans to create a system where students will come out of college debt free. Yet these words aren't real either, just a short term and short sighted talking point. Such a proposal is estimated to throw $84 billion of costs onto the taxpayer every year. The debt isn’t free in the slightest; it merely shifts to the public dole for an education they themselves may not have received.
Just imagine explaining to a working class person who didn’t go to college being taxed to pay for the college of upper and middle income folks who did. If the so-called "coalition of the ascendant" so popular during the Obama administration saw its comeuppance as rust belt voters saw a new champion in Donald Trump, imagine the public outcry should the working class be forced to subsidize the brick and glass college towns of the American left?
The misuse of the word free is intended to convey a proposal that cannot be and does not exist. The costs are simply driven down to the American taxpayer: the working class citizens of our nation. As costs rise, the claim on the money will compete with the other priorities of government like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the high priority of America's national defense.
Of course, the proponents of free college have an answer as simplistic as the question: just raise taxes.
Yet this doesn't put out the fire, nor does it resolve the skyrocketing cost of post-secondary education in America. Colleges and universities in the United States have been raising tuitions and fees at an accelerating pace, with the cost of post-secondary education rising nearly 8 times faster than wages. Over the last 30 years, average college tuition rates have skyrocketed 213%. Those graduating from a four-year institution carry upwards of $30,000 of debt on average. A grand total of $1.4 trillion in student debt continues to rise, and much like the housing bubble of 2007 or any other credit crunch, the hope that the American taxpayer becomes the lender of last resort is half the game -- and the wrong bet to make, if for no other reason than it mortgages our future to a society-wide moral hazard. How much longer can it last?
Finally, these rising tuitions eventually will have a ceiling, limited by how much the student and their family can pay and supplemented by scholarships and loans. Remember, every dime of scholarship and loan money does not go to the student, it goes to the college. If the unlimited supply of taxpayer money suddenly becomes available to the colleges, the ceiling comes right off. College costs will redefine the word skyrocket as they increase without limit. Working class Americans will simply shoulder more of the burden to finance an environment that is more cartel than education system -- because it is all for the children (of course).
The colleges may think this is all a good idea -- for now. More money... but rest assured the strings attached to federal funding now will become chains before they become anchors and deadweights. In the end, free college will be a decision they will come to regret. How will they decide admissions once the government is paying the freight? Will every student have a claim on that tax benefit in equal measure at the same institution of higher learning? Or are we going to have the admissions committee decide which student gets the taxpayer funded benefit and which doesn’t? The regulations and reporting requirements will essentially make the colleges an arm of the state -- good luck with that regime!
In the end, the notion of “free college” undermines the system of personal responsibility we have come to expect from new and rising citizens in a free society.
We expect the costs of education to be shouldered by the person receiving the benefit, whether that is an English major at Yale or a welder in Iowa. Pooling that cost and throwing the financial burden (and risk) onto a taxpayer takes away that responsibility and the incentive to excel.
Free college becomes shorthand for "no responsibilities" -- and that is the insidious endgame of these proposals. By taking individual excellence and pooling it into a no risk, taxpayer funded subsidy, these proposals hijack the very idea of an education as an improvement of the self for one's own sake -- an idea as old as Aristotle. When we alter this understanding for any available excuse, we are redefining what it actually means to risk an education. We do not pursue an education for the sake of credentialism, but to improve our own intellect and gifts so as to find one's place in the world, and it is (and ought to be) an intensely personal, adult, and self-developing act.
Until the question of moral hazard is honestly addressed, and until the costs of post-secondary education is brought back down to earth, we are merely treating symptoms without addressing cures. To further subsidize problems by throwing money at them only continues the vast redefinition of society sought by the cultural apparatchiks of the left -- and it must be immediately dismissed.
More after the jump. . .