Free college and college loan debt forgiveness are very popular with some Democrats, though Reason’s Oliver Wiseman admits it is getting hard to remember which 2020 candidate promised what.
But is free college such a good idea?
The United Kingdom supported free college for nearly 40 years, according to Wiseman’s article in Reason. But then the U.K. began to move in the opposite direction.
In 1998 a modest tuition of $1,200 a year was introduced. Tuition is now around $11,000 a year. Wiseman writes that students in England now leave school with $60,000 in debt (I am not getting the math here, but I’ll take Wiseman’s word).
Students start paying their debt once they begin earning more than $30,000. What debt remains after 30 years is forgiven. So fewer people from modest backgrounds are now going to university, right?
Yet today the number of university students from poor backgrounds is larger than it has ever been. The story of why the British government opted to end a policy similar to those proposed by leading Democrats—and what has happened to higher education in the U.K. since—is instructive for the American debate.
The case for free college is simple enough: higher education should be for the many, not the few. In the U.S., today's eye-watering costs prevent that from being the case. [Senator Bernie] Sanders called it "a national disgrace" that many Americans don't attend college "not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it." Counterintuitive though it might seem, a desire to broaden access and increase the number of young Brits in college was exactly why the U.K. opted for the opposite course from the one Sanders is proposing.
Before the introduction of tuition fees, government resources could not keep up with increased demand for university education. Per-student funding dropped by 40 percent in the last two decades of the tuition-free system. In order to keep costs under control, the government spent less per student and rationed the number of spots available. But costs continued to balloon. What's worse, students from better-off backgrounds were more likely to grab one of the limited number of spots, so it was students from poor backgrounds who suffered, with the gap in degree attainment between rich and poor widening.
Britain faced a choice: an elitist university system in which the state subsidized the education of a select few who managed to perform well on high-stakes tests, or giving many more people the opportunity to earn a university degree by shifting part of the financial burden from the state to the individual; it opted for the latter.
Today, students pick up the bill for, on average, around 65 percent of the cost of the education they receive, with taxpayers plugging the gap. More students are enrolled than ever before and those students benefit from more per-student funding than the generations that paid nothing for college.
Democratic presidential hopefuls say they want to get more students from poor backgrounds enrolled in college. In the U.K., the best way to do that was by charging, not by making college free. In the last decade, the number of 18-year-olds from "low participation"––poor––neighborhoods going to college has increased by 75 percent. And over that period of time, funding per student has risen by a quarter. There have never been more young Brits who qualify for free school meals going to college.
. . .
There are persuasive principled objections to taxpayer-funded college. If the individual accrues the lion's share of the benefits of a college degree, why shouldn't he or she bear the cost? Asking taxpayers to fund universal free tuition means asking, for example, a farm worker who earns the minimum wage to pay for the education of a student from a wealthy household en route to a high-flying career in law or finance. You don't need to be an avowed free marketeer to see the problem here; none other than Karl Marx raised a similar objection when he said "If higher education institutions are also free that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the bourgeoisie from the general tax receipts."
Read the entire article.