There’s no such thing as free college

If more students were to graduate on time, universities could better serve their students with degree programs that foster academic engagement.
If more students were to graduate on time, universities could better serve their students with degree programs that foster academic engagement. Photo Credit: ASPCA

Nothing is free. Someone has to pay. But when you’re looking to attract voters, promising free benefits is an easy way to do it.

In the 2016 election, the big giveaway promise from Democrats is public-college tuition. The assumption is that it’s a noble goal, and the only stumbling block is finding the money in the federal coffers. But fixing the problems of high tuition at state universities and student-loan debt is more complicated than just having Washington write checks. And, as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was pointing out until she veered left to pick up more support from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ fans, free college, where the student has no “skin in the game,” isn’t a good idea.

The Republican platform on higher education focuses mostly on creating alternatives to traditional college attendance and forcing institutions to be more efficient and accountable. The party isn’t wrong about creating more educational options and transparency, but in truth this is an issue to which presidential nominee Donald Trump and establishment Republicans have paid comparatively scant attention.

No one who knows New York history can claim free college is impossible: Until 1963, students at State University of New York campuses paid no tuition. And few would argue that prices haven’t risen too fast, often because state funding support has waned. Nationally, state funding of public universities has dropped about 15 percent since 2008. In New York, direct state funding for SUNY’s 64-campus system has fallen almost 30 percent since 2008.

Even so, public college tuition for in-state students in New York is a good deal, at $6,470 a year, below the national average of about $7,000. Compared to Pennsylvania, at $13,395 a year, it’s a steal. Pennsylvania’s state budget kicks in less than $4,000 per student (New York spends $8,830), whereas North Carolina spends almost $9,000 per student but in-state tuition is comparable to New York’s, at $6,966.

The range of state support and pricing is enormous, with the cheapest states charging homegrown students around $5,000 a year and the most expensive getting as much as $15,000.

So how would a federal program to pay the tuition of every student whose family makes less than $125,000 per year, as Clinton has proposed, work? Would states refusing to support their universities through taxes and levying huge tuitions get massive checks from Washington to make it free for students, while states that support their colleges through budgets and keep tuitions low get far less help from D.C.? That wouldn’t be equitable or sensible. What about the idea, as Clinton has said, that states like Pennsylvania would be pushed to increase state spending and bring down tuition over a period of years to get in line with federal compliance standards? That would probably work out much like the Medicaid expansion that came with the Affordable Care Act: States that disagree would refuse to participate.

Education experts say Washington could incentivize more budgetary support in some states by rewarding students in the most college-supportive states, and filling with jealousy and anger parents and students in the least supportive ones. But economists tell us new sources of revenue almost automatically increase spending. This program would have to be structured so that foolish spending costs colleges federal support. That’s a tricky program to design considering it would be students who lost their free tuition if the spending by state universities got out of line.

There’s also the worry that, given this educational opportunity for free, students won’t value it highly enough. For most of her current campaign, Clinton argued that students who get free tuition under her plan need to work at least 10 hours a week. She was right. They need to put in some of their own energy and elbow grease to match the commitment of taxpayers to get themselves through school. Clinton’s shift toward Sanders’ model of free tuition was a political pander that weakened her pretty good idea.

Education really is the best ticket to a good life, although that doesn’t always have to mean a 4-year degree. President Barack Obama has proposed free community college tuition for all, which could be used either for vocational programs or toward a bachelor’s degree. Again, some students might value an entirely free opportunity as worth exactly what they paid for it, but extremely inexpensive community colleges are a key to a good living for some and a four-year degree for others. With some tweaks Obama’s plan, called the American College Promise Program, would be a great start.

Student debt is out of control, and even in traditional colleges, less than half of new full-time students graduate in six years.

It is against the law for those who owe student debt to refinance at current rates, a rule that needs to be changed immediately. And schools that don’t graduate enough students or place a high enough percentage in jobs shouldn’t be allowed to profit by government-backed or issued student loans.

Washington has a place in assuring the nation’s students a variety of paths to affordable, debt-free post-high school educations, but dealing with varying levels of state support and economical behavior in their universities will be difficult.

The campaign promises are easy. The policy would be harder, but within rational limits, very worthwhile.