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There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free College Education

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 single biggest 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.

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