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The Holy Zero

Lots of you have been asking what I think of a program to provide “free” or “near free” college tuition to Americans. While I wouild not place such a policy in the rarefied air of things like Cash for Clunkers and Rent Control laws, it is certainly on a hot air baloon making its way up there. There is at least one element of the current debate that I appreciate, that politiicians seem to modestly respect the idea that “free” ain’t free and that the resources to do free colllege do have to come from somewhere. That said, remember that ANY decrease in tuition in America is likely a redistribution away from the neediest people in America and toward a less needy population – and this is wholly aside from the obvious idea that spending hundreds of billions more dollars in American subsdizing what has become a consumption activity and degraded academic activity comes at the same time “we need” to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to combat climate change (but as you probably have learned, climate change is not something people actually care that much about, they SAY they care that much about it but it truly is not a top priority almost anywhere in the world – go check out the myriad survey data on this for starters) or taking measures to work with very needy refugees around the world and more.

I tend to believe that if the debate about “free tuition” were genuine, it is a case of cargo cultism gone very bad. You see, “successful” people have college degrees, so what we should do is make sure lots of people have successful degrees. Of course, this conveniently wipes away the fact, yes fact, that what happens prior to college is of far more serious concern than getting people into college. But I do not believe it is a case of cargo cultism, my belief is that the is pandering and political theatrics. After all, there is already universal access to free college tuiition at state and local supported community colleges. Seriously. Not only have the real costs of community college not changed in 30 years, it is not hard at all to make access entirely free today. Yet not many people take advantage of this, and beyond that, what we know about the outcomes of community college attendees suggests that attrition is very high and there is not evidence that democrtizing college access in this way has had a large impact on the lifetime earnings of their attendees or our broader economic and social picture.

So, what is it, exactly, that people want free? Big, giant, gloriously well appointed, universities? As a taxpayer I’d have a very hard time accepting the notion that we should be supporting students going to places with climbing walls, football teams, “team green” initiatives, frats and sororities, outing clubs, and so on – so where does this “free” tuition lead? Over time it will surely lead to political pressure on colleges to change what they offer and to whom, and it is surely going to lead to political pressure to keep tuition down. One of the papers I wrote before I became a teacher examined whether in fact colleges and universities responded to higher student subsidies by “eating more” … in other words, do expenditures and student fees increase in response to students having more financial aid and the schools getting more institutional support? I’ll let you ponder the possible answers to that question on your own.

Furthermore, not only are students not at all prepared for college, after all current college completion rates are only about 50%, it is not at all clear that conventional colleges are the best way to improve the later life outcomes of students. Why college subsidies? Why not, instead, roll that into a broader cash grant program for everyone to take advantage of, and use however they wish? What these programs look like to me, in any case, are fairly naked attempts to “redistribute” (as if it was “distributed” in the first place) income from less favored groups to a political constituency that favors particular classes of politicians.┬áThere are surely other attractive political aspects of this – there are public colleges in every voting district, so this is one of those subsidies that has a little sugar in it for everyone.

Finally, and there is a lot more to say, it would be nice of the blowhards that offer up such programs were aware of what these sorts of things have done in the past and have the potential to do in the future. I strongly suggest that future higher education quality would not be enhanced but rather compromised by these plans. And in response to the obvious capture of these new revenues by colleges, there would be increasing pressure for future price and spending controls and even more political pressure to control what is and is not done on university campuses. Furthermore, with much more federal funding making its way into higher education, would you see political pressure on students to take particular majors and engage in particular activities so that taxpayers “get their money’s worth?” Will universities be allowed to attract star academic talent? If you pay a hot-shot psychologist $500,000, that is 7 other regular professors that could have been hired. There’s no doubt that political pressure to “reevaluate” our priorities would be forthcoming. I actually quite like the prospects for that, as a lot of the current constituents in higher education could probably use a dose of their own medicine from time to time – so paradoxically the political decline of higher ed may provide the impetus to make improvements elsewhere. Not mentioned in all of this is that for all of the political handwriting about college access and affordability, going to college is still an incredibly good financial deal – though I am in the camp that suggests that the “going” part is over-considered in the analysis, college tends to select for people that would do well regardless of whether they went or not.

There is much more to say of course. Lest you think I am cranky (I suppose I am), remember that at least over the course of my expected lifetime, I personally would stand to benefit a great deal from any such program, and it is likely that my own children would probably benefit a bit too. Finally, on the political side, before I ever got behind a program like this, I would like to see an honest politician say, “well, let’s spend $XXX billion more on higher education, I am not sure it will do much, but in order to pay for it, I will permanently spend less on THIS OTHER program by the same amount.” That way, we see where real priorities are. There simply aren’t enough rich people around to steal all of their money to pay for this and all of the other goodies that politicians inevitably are going to promise the sheeple. And I’ll say it now as I will say it hundreds of times before … our governments at all levels already spend more dollars than the GDP of every other country on earth aside from China, yet we still need “more” in order to finally start making progress on important political goals?

In case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from …


In response, a student of mine shares a little of his own story (with his permission):

As I read through your response to the USA`s proposition of making higher education free, I thought that perhaps I could point out a couple of consequences of it that I have had the chance to experience first-hand. I am an International Student coming from Brazil, where I previously attended a public (no-tuition) university`s Law School for three years before transferring to the University of Rochester (and becoming a freshman again). Now, the system works differently there (obviously): in Brazil public (i.e.tuition-free) universities are considered much better than their private counterparts (and one goes to Law School directly from High School), but I think at least some observations may translate to the US, even with mitigated effects.
1. Very successful individuals are still attracted to teaching there, because of the status it provides. Nevertheless, the salary a public university pays is not enough for someone to support oneself (much less a family), so the salary as a professor is usually a secondary income source while they perform other jobs in other companies during the rest of the day. This leads to the professor being unable to offer office hours, or prepare the classes properly, or dedicate any time outside of the classroom to his students. Being a professor is used as a title to boost their actual profession outside of the classroom instead of being a profession in-and-of itself.
2. Since they are employed by the State, it is extremely difficult for a professor to get fired. Therefore, professors would miss class unannounced, arrive very late for it, or simply not worry at all about preparing for class and show up without a plan of teaching. This is not to mention professors that did not correct the exams at all (instead assigning grades randomly, and admitting to do so in front of the classroom). Any kind of complaint would get lost in the bureaucracy of the University management, which depended on the Education Department to make decisions.
3. Funding would be a problem, as you very well pointed out in your e-mail. Now, I know things tend to work much better here, but just for illustration purposes, I would provide some examples from back home: (i) no club gets any funding whatsoever from the University, (ii) no-one lives in campus housing, because there is none (iii) the infra-structure of the university would be falling apart: I studied in what is widely considered Brazil`s best Law School, and the wooden chairs we sat on were so old that they still had place for quill pens in it. The other pubic universities probably had it worse.
Now, obviously things are very different here, and I doubt consequences would be so extreme, but I think some of them are interesting to point-out, even as a matter of curiosity.
But that’s of course Brazil. We’re different here, right?

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