There Ain't No Such Thing As Free College Education

It’s difficult not to stray just a bit from purely market/economic content herein (as I have of late [it’s the season]), particularly when I hear directly from our clients that their delightful, bright and still impressionable children whom I’ve come to know  through the years—either in person or through their parents doting anecdotes—are being duped by political wolves in dogooders clothing, as they emerge into young adulthood .

Sure, a free college education for all sounds beautiful, but to truly believe that it’s doable—that an education can in fact by some miracle ever be free—is to engage in the kind of magical thinking that we adored those years ago as the sparkles of our eyes sat on the knees of costumed jollymen and shared their hearts’ desires. 

Today, sadly, the sparkles (in some) have given way to a bent-browed intensity—anger even—that says an education is a right that one should not have to pay for! Well, if indeed we go so far as to set our young adults onto the knee of Washington, while they’ll surely, initially, hail the kings who upheld their “rights”—and for a time cast their votes accordingly—as they grow into productive, tax-paying members of society they’ll come to know once and for all that there is no such thing as a free education. Like the day they realized that their shopping mall wishes were not magically met by the man with the beard—that it was Mom and/or Dad who ate the Christmas Eve cookies they placed by the fire, drank the milk, and paid for the red wagon—they’ll come to know that an education worth having will never be free. Although there’ll be no loving affection for the ones who fostered their naivete this time around, for it’ll be them who are paying the bill! And, as my favorite breathing economist, Don Beaudreaux, instructs below, they’ll pay it in more ways than one.

Pass this on to anyone whom you believe believes the free education fallacy, along with this link to Don’s blog Cafe Hayek (where they’ll receive an absolute wealth of education for the cost—a few minutes a day!)…

There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free College Education

by DON BOUDREAUX on APRIL 22, 2016

Here’s a letter to a high-school student from Kansas City who e-mailed me this morning:

22 April 2016

Mr. Parker J________

Dear Mr. J________:

Thanks for your e-mail, and good luck writing the essay for your high-school newspaper!

You ask “What … could be the possible effects of making public universities free to attend? Would the benefits outweigh the costs?”  My answer is simple: it is impossible to make universities free, and any attempts to perform this impossible feat will create more costs than benefits.

Universities – whether private or public – are built of land and materials, and they require for their daily operation not only non-human resources such as electricity, books, computers, printers, projectors, lighting, elevators, and office furniture, but also lots of human labor: professors, administrators, and staff.  Each of these resources, both non-human and human, could be used in ways other than to supply classroom instruction and research at the collegiate level.  So to use these resources in colleges is to sacrifice those goods and services that we’d enjoy if these resources were not used in colleges.  These sacrifices are real costs, and they must be borne by someone.

Government can certainly shift more of these costs from students onto taxpayers.  But such a shifting does not eliminate these costs.  Indeed, such a shifting of costs away from the most direct users of colleges (students) onto other people (taxpayers) will cause students to use collegiate resources more carelessly.  (Think of what you’d order at a restaurant if you knew that the restaurant will pick up the tab for whatever you order as opposed to you knowing that you must personally pay for whatever meal you order.)  The result is that colleges become more costly.

Government can hide these higher costs, but you and your fellow students will pay these costs eventually in the form of higher taxes when you enter the workforce and in the form of economic growth made slower because of the increasing waste of resources that “free” college entails.  (By the way, because I’m a tenured college professor, government attempts to make college “free” will likely cause my income to rise.  The reason is that such a policy will result in government funneling more and more taxpayer dollars into higher education.)

A final note: a big part of the cost of college – for many students the singlebiggest part of the cost – is not tuition and expenses.  It’s the income that students forgo by attending college rather than working.  So even if by some miracle a Pres. Sanders makes all of the vast resources that colleges now use free, each and every college student will still unavoidably bear the significant cost of foregone income.

In short, neither colleges nor college attendance can possibly be made free, and attempts to make them appear to be free will only make them more expensive over time.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

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