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Why free college tuition is a bad idea

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In this Feb. 17, 2021 file photo, students walk on the Boston College campus in Boston. President Joe Biden campaigned on multiple tuition-free college proposals. But experts are divided on whether now is the time students could see a broad free college program.

Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

Want to attend college for free?

Who knows? Maybe you could take an economics course and learn that nothing of value truly comes without cost, and that things aren’t always as good as they might seem on the surface — such as those promises associated with free tuition.

And, chances are, the American people as a whole would learn that, too, without stepping into a classroom, if President Joe Biden’s free-tuition plan for community colleges finds its way into law.

The plan is expensive and unnecessary, and history shows it would miss the mark, helping those who don’t need it. 

Low-income students already have easy access to Pell Grants and other aids that help pay for community college tuition, which negates the sole stated focus of the president’s plan.

The College Board, a nonprofit formed in 1899 to expand access to higher education, recently released a report that concluded, “Since 2009-10, first-time full-time undergraduate students at public two-year colleges have been receiving enough grant aid on average to cover their tuition and fees.”

In other words, we’ve already got this. Low-income students already have ways to acquire free associate degrees. The same report also notes that public two-year school tuition is on average $3,770, compared to to $10,560 for in-state students at four-year public universities, and $37,650 for private, nonprofit four-year universities.

Community college is the low-hanging fruit of free tuition, except that there really isn’t much fruit there, at all. But the plan would be far from free. 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates this portion of Biden’s American Families Plan would cost $109 billion. Much of that likely would go to the students of wealthier families who otherwise could afford the relatively small cost of a community college.

Granted, $109 billion sounds like pocket change compared to the trillions former President Donald Trump and Congress added to the national debt, and the trillions more Biden has proposed adding. 

But this money would introduce the camel’s nose under the tent of higher education. The nation can’t afford to go there without a deep look at what people in countries that already offer free tuition at four-year institutions have learned.

The first lesson is that free tuition does — no surprise here — increase enrollment. At the same time, it takes an important funding source — tuition — away from schools. Even with the extra funding provided by the government, some European countries have found that education funding is stretched too thin.

The Hechinger Report, which covers inequality and innovation in education, found that free tuition in Germany led to a 10% decline in per-pupil spending for higher education, to levels far below that of the United States.  

Mandy Gratz, a member of the executive committee of the German students union, was quoted describing how German undergraduates sit in lecture halls “with hundreds and hundreds of students,” being taught by doctoral candidates, not professors. The universities “say they do not have enough money for research. But they do not have enough money for teaching, either,” she told the report.

In Sweden, the free-market think tank Timbro concluded free tuition hasn’t helped low-income students, at all. It reports that the nation has a smaller proportion of students from “socio-economically weak homes” than the average of the 36 member nations of the  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A recent Timbro report on free tuition found, “It is mainly students with highly educated parents who are subsidized with the current system.” Also, Sweden has seen fewer people complete their degrees than the OECD average. When something is free, it isn’t valued as much. 

The poor face many more challenges and barriers to a college degree than tuition, alone. Not the least of these is covering basic living expenses while studying.

None of this is to suggest that higher education in the United States isn’t in need of drastic reform, or that the nation shouldn’t find more ways to help low-income people earn degrees. Biden’s free-tuition plan is popular because the cost of college — particularly obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher, has become punitively expensive.

According to Nerdwallet.com, people with student loans owed a combined $1.67 trillion as of last June. In 2019, 62% of all college graduates left with student-loan debt that averaged $28,950. Free tuition would not solve the runaway cost of a higher education, it would merely spread it among all taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution recently cited studies showing that the lure of free community college would pull substantial numbers of students away from four-year universities, which could reduce the number of bachelor’s degrees earned.

The nation would be better served by focusing on ways to reduce education’s overall costs, as well as by innovative loan structures that incentivize students to finish degrees and obtain employment. The focus should be on helping low-income students overcome all the barriers they face toward obtaining college degrees, and on reducing overall costs. 

One of the worst arguments against free tuition is that it is unfair to force all Americans to pay for higher education. The truth is the nation as a whole would benefit from a system that provides accessible and affordable degrees to as many people as possible. 

But Biden’s shiny and enticing idea won’t get us there.