Free Stuff? Sorry, Can’t Afford It

Students at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth hang out in the quad on campus on April 26, 2013 in Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

The song says, “The best things in life are free,” and the Democratic presidential candidates seem to agree.

We need to “make every public college and university in this country tuition free,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed Socialist from Vermont, declared. Front-running Hillary Clinton added, “My plan would enable anyone to go to a public college or university tuition free. You would not have to borrow money for tuition.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was also on board. “We can talk about affordable college, making college debt free, and all the issues,” he said.

There’s no question that giving away free stuff is good politics. But it isn’t good for the country.

Let’s zero in on college. For his part, O’Malley and his wife owe more than $300,000 in student debt after sending his daughter to Georgetown. Small wonder he wants to see costs reduced.

But government policy is what’s actually driving up prices. As Washington makes more and more money available through loans and grants, schools raise tuition to capture that money. It’s a vicious cycle, spinning upward. Chriss Street writes:

In “Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition: Evidence from the Expansion in Federal Student Aid Programs,” the New York Fed makes the allegation that the federal government has fueled a vicious cycle of higher prices and government aid that ultimately could cost taxpayers and price some Americans out of higher education, similar to what many economists contend caused the housing bubble and bust.

Some states are pushing back.

In 2011, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged public schools to create programs that would deliver a four-year degree for $10,000. By last year, 11 schools had them in place. Similar programs are working in other states.

Note that $10,000 is still a nice chunk of change. And that’s the point. A university degree shouldn’t — in fact cannot — be free. It’s much more than a piece of sheepskin; a degree represents a massive investment of time, of effort and, yes, of money.

That doesn’t mean it’s worth any price. Is four years at Georgetown really worth a quarter of a million dollars? Probably not. Prices work both ways. If customers will stop borrowing and paying such high rates, the rates will eventually come down.

But not if the government makes tuition “free.” Because in this case, “free” really just means “paid for by somebody else,” whether that’s Wall Street, or taxpayers, or future taxpayers.

Bobby Jindal is correct when he says that everyone should pay something in taxes, so everyone will have skin in the game. By the same token, we need to pay something for college, for health care, for retirement.

The country can’t afford to hand out more “free” stuff.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.