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January 16 2019

The High Cost of "Free" College

by Charlotte Hays

Free college is on the agenda for most Democrats (including such 2020 hopefuls as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro).

Advocates of free college tuition argue that countries with higher percentages of college graduates are more prosperous and that, on an individual level, college grads earn more than their non-degreed contemporaries.

If degrees are so important, asks Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, what's not to like about subsidizing them? Plenty, Riley replies, relying on a new book by an economic historian at Ohio University.

Economic historian Richard Vedder's "Restoring the Promise," a sequel to his "Going Broke by Degree," argues that federal subsidies for tuition, far from being a solution to the problem of the high cost of college, will only make things worse.

Riley writes:

[Vedder] said college costs have risen whenever student aid was made more generous. He doesn’t expect it to be any different this time. Tuition is only about 20% of the total cost of attending college. If tuition is subsidized, he expects colleges will raise nontuition costs.

“I’ve come out very strongly against free college on a whole variety of grounds,” Mr. Vedder said. “But the most important is that a majority of people going to college are not poor. Even at state universities, a majority of the students are from moderately affluent, upper-middle-class families.”

But doesn’t a college education help lift the prospects of poor students who attend? Sometimes, said Mr. Vedder, but you have to graduate first. “Forty percent of our kids who go to college don’t graduate. We have a tremendous dropout rate, much bigger than the high-school dropout rate. These kids are saddled with a certain amount of debt and their earnings prospects are barely equal to that of a high-school grad.”

Though schools ought to be more discriminating about whom they admit, student financial-assistance programs push them to admit students who are not prepared to succeed. In 1970, about 12% of recent college grads came from the bottom 25% of the income distribution. Today, it’s about 10%. “We’ve had a decline in poor people graduating from college. More poor people are attending, but fewer are graduating. We have not really improved making college a vehicle for achieving the American dream.”

 It might also be the case, Vedder argues, that the country is being flooded with college grads. More than 13 million people with degrees are employed in jobs that do not require degrees. I am a big believer in the liberal education, but college is not for everybody.

There are alternatives, including vocational schools (see IWF's current Champion Women profile of Antoinette Jackson, a Long Island auto mechanic). The kicker:

As [Vedder] says, “There’s nothing wrong with being a welder who makes $150,000 a year.”

 





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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