Editor's Note: This piece was co-authored by U.S. Congresswoman Lisa McClain and Dr. Kent D. MacDonald.
A “Baker's Dozen" is synonymous with more, or extra in a transaction. This piece provides (extra) arguments - a baker’s dozen - why government subsidized, free college tuition is bad for all involved.
Making the case:
The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. Frederic Bastiat
Nowhere are Bastiat’s words becoming more evident than with the many in Washington and their fascination with free college tuition.
To better understand the naïveté of this harmful and expensive proposition, consider the current state of affairs. According to Statista, the percentage of Americans 25 years old or greater who completed a four-year degree or higher has increased significantly from 1940 (5.5 percent of men and 3.8 percent of women) to 2019 (35.4 percent of men and over 36 percent of women).
Completion rates can improve, yet some in Washington suggest the only reason more individuals do not complete college is because the cost is too high and debt levels are unacceptable (cumulative U.S. student loan debt is over $1.71 trillion, with 45 million past and present students holding an average debt of $37,693, according to Forbes Magazine).
Addressing fiscal barriers is important, but financial hardship is but one factor in assessing the merits of free college tuition. Free college tuition is a false panacea and following are our baker’s dozen points that offer further food for thought.
Impact on choice – Choice of institution, field of study, time to complete and study intensity will be limited due to financial rationing. We believe a free-tuition system will also, over time, limit institutional differentiation as government support will likely be conditional. The result is stifled competition, lower quality, and less innovation. In places like Norway, free tuition forced institutional mergers and campus closures. If implemented, expect the same here.
Government power and monopolies – A free-tuition mandate will limit access and create space shortages (free-tuition universities in Sweden and Denmark had to cut budgets, forcing consolidation and denying access to about 1 in 4 aspiring students – usually those who could least afford it).
Impact on the labor market – Free tuition will compel a great number of high school graduates to give college or university a chance. Realistically, many will be unsuccessful. This delayed entry into the workforce will limit earning power for some individuals, create worker shortages, impacting landscaping companies, hotels, restaurants, skilled trades, the U.S. Military, et al.
Free college benefits higher income families – Studies have confirmed free tuition benefits are enjoyed mostly by those of higher socioeconomic status. Higher education consultant Alex Usher reminds us “we know that making higher education free, on its own, is very unlikely to change the social composition very much (i.e. it won’t be effective on its own terms), and therefore will provide extraordinary benefits to children of upper-income families.”
Student loan forgiveness – Expect fierce legal and lobbying efforts for the federal government to forgive existing student debt. In addition, Americans who sacrificed greatly and paid for their college education will rightfully seek compensation. We estimate this movement will cost over two trillion yet unbudgeted dollars.
Embrace Private Higher Education – This year, U.S. News & World Report cited that 19 of the top universities in the world are American with 16 of them private, including the top 3. To grow American ingenuity and innovation, universities require more freedom from government interference, not less. Independence from government bureaucracy is essential.
Rent controls are real – Over time, the demand for rent-controlled apartments skyrockets, exhausting inventory, creating long waiting lists, and limiting access. Look for a similar result in the higher education sector, as the need to build new infrastructure, hire new personnel and increase investments will either dramatically increase the budgeted cost of ‘free’ education or force institutions to cut costs and delay or forego improvements.
College education is a public and private good – In speaking of free tuition, Ohio University Professor Richard Vedder argues… “such a program would disproportionately benefit moderately wealthy families who would send their kids to college largely on the backs of other taxpayers… (it also) eliminates the need for employers to give their employees the opportunity to take courses at certain colleges.”
Incentives and disincentives matter – One of America’s higher education strengths is the diversity of institutions. The value of attaining a private college or university education cannot be understated as these institutions offer a much broader range of learning milieus, including faith-based, and other affiliations. Free tuition at public universities would harm private schools and forever compromise the long-term strength of America’s enviable diverse college system.
Vocational Education – Many high schools offer students the opportunity to pursue a career pathway in the skilled trades (plumber, electrician, etc.) as this choice delivers a lucrative career without amassing college debt. With free college tuition, many future vocational candidates may decide to pursue a college degree, leading to reduced vocational education participation and an even greater shortage of skilled trades workers.
Data. Is it a graduation rate problem or an excess number of students? – According to a 2017 UNESCO report, “The number of students in higher education institutions around the world more than doubled,” (2007: 100 million students; 2014: 207 million students). During this time, the global higher education gross enrollment ratio rose to 34 percent, up from 19 percent. The United States is among the best at #6 overall, with a higher education gross enrollment of 47.43 percent of its 331 million population. Following far behind are countries like #30 Germany, 29.1 percent; #41 Mexico 18 percent; #44 India 10.60 percent; and, #45 China, 9.68 percent. It seems to us the UNESCO study and other facts noted above may be telling those in Washington to leave well enough alone.
Nationalizing the American higher education system – The closing of many private K-12 schools – which stressed rigor and discipline – has contributed to the decline in American international scores in Math, Science and Reading. Unlike the K-12 system, the U.S. higher education system is the envy of the world, with private universities and colleges leading the way. Nationalizing much of higher education with free tuition will negatively and irrevocably impact the quality, innovation, and effectiveness of the American system, just as nationalization has done to numerous industries in socialist countries.
U.S. National Debt – Our greatest concern is that the overall national debt of the United States now stands at a staggering $28.32 trillion. In 1980, the U.S. national debt was 34.59% of GDP. Today it is almost 128% of GDP! Adding a free-tuition program will further negatively impact the outcomes of America for at least the next generation.
The debate regarding whether to adopt a free college tuition program seems to be abundantly clear. This pursuit will limit student choices and weaken “The Academy’s” diversity of thought at all levels. Its expense will dramatically hinder our government’s ability to be fiscally responsive to other demands, including infrastructure, low interest rates, and keeping Americans and the world safe.
Free tuition and universal subsidies are regressive, benefiting those who already have the capacity to pay for a college education. Further, low income families already have tuition mostly covered through various grants. Quite simply, free college tuition is an idea we simply cannot afford – financially, socially, economically, academically, and morally. Innovation and ingenuity are largely the result of individual liberty and freedom, entrepreneurship and risk-taking and institutional independence, not a nationalized higher education system.
Dr. Kent D. MacDonald is president of Northwood University, U.S. Congresswoman Lisa McClain is a member of the U.S. Congress from the 10th District of Michigan, and Dr. Timothy G. Nash is director of the McNair Center at Northwood University.