Contrary to Democrats’ Promises, “Free College” is Anything But Free

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are once again tripping all over themselves to capture the youth vote by promising “free public college.”

“I want those kids to know that if they study hard, they do their homework, regardless of the income of their families, they will in fact be able to get a great college education,” Sanders said in the most recent Democrat debate. “Because we’re gonna make public colleges and universities tuition-free.”

Clinton, for her part, wasn’t willing to go quite that far.

“I believe that we should make community college free. We should have debt-free college if you go to a public college or university,” Clinton said on the same debate stage. “You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition.”

But what does all this really mean? What happens when you look under the hood of promises like “tuition-free” or “free community college” or “debt-free” college? By now we should all be comfortable with the idea that nothing is free. One way or another taxpayers are paying for it, though Democrats have become tremendously adept at putting as many bureaucratic steps between them and straight income redistribution as possible.

What it really means is that tuition is capped at zero to the student, leaving the government as the single payer of public higher education. As Andrew Kelly writes for the New York Times, that thought should scare everyone across the political spectrum:

That tuition cap limits college spending to whatever the public is willing to invest. But it does not change the cost of college, or what institutions actually spend per student. If the past is any guide, that cost will continue to grow, and an influx of federal money may lead profligate administrators to spend even more. Enrollments will also increase, further multiplying the cost of free college.

The key question, then, is what happens if public generosity does not keep pace with rising college costs, increases in demand, or both? Barring a drastic improvement in efficiency, tuition-free colleges won’t have the resources to serve additional students without compromising the quality of their offerings.

As progressive advocates of free college are so eager to point out, public funding hasn’t kept up with such changes in the past.

Kelly goes on to write about the California community college system, which turned away 600,000 students during the recession, but I’m thinking of something much broader: K-12 education. How many editorials have you read in your local newspapers bemoaning the need for higher teacher pay, more classroom investment, and the sad disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” in public K-12 schools? Is this really the budget model that the federal government wants to emulate? Moreover, does our K-12 system, which isn’t exactly world renowned, produce the educational outcomes that we want to extend to our system of higher education, which is viewed favorably around the globe?

Even if you believe that the finances make sense, pushing for free public college still does nothing to address the core obstacles to student success. Allison Schrager writes for Quartz:

[S]tudents from low income families tend to be the ones who flounder and drop out. Their high drop out rate suggests what’s going wrong masks a deeper problem free tuition can’t fix.

Other research shows that free tuition doesn’t keep high-achieving, low-income students from dropping out, if they attend a low quality school. Fees aren’t the only problem they face, school quality and the resources per student make a big difference. Low-income students often enroll poorly prepared from inadequate secondary school and many lack family support to push through when college gets hard. Negotiating the college bureaucracy is hard, it’s even harder to persevere when you have few college graduate role models.

These are the reasons that just one-third of students from the bottom income quarter finished their degree within six year, despite the fact that federal grants cover the price of tuition for the average student. If we want to fix those numbers, we’ll have to look well beyond surface-level solutions like making college free and address social factors, like strengthening families, as well as economic factors, like providing better jobs for graduates and non-graduates alike.

But don’t expect to hear solutions, or even meaningful discussions about those difficult problems, not when they can simply throw out great-sounding talking points about free stuff.