By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

The idea is to promote equality and a better future for young people, but free college might have the opposite effect.

Among the fifty-plus articles The Coaching Educator has published since launching this blog, the one we refer to most frequently is An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much (September 6, 2018). That’s because the whole matter of going to college almost always comes around to a discussion of money. The cost of college rose eleven-fold between 1978 and 2012, and student debt is now the second-largest form of consumer debt (mortgages are still tops), with about 44 million borrowers averaging about $37,000 each. Of course that was last year, and things can only have gotten worse, but we’ll spare you a conscientious foray into the current figures. You get the idea.

But what if the whole matter of going to college didn’t involve a discussion of money?

At a time when no policy proposal is too radical to attract serious attention (or attention that purports to be serious, anyway), the words “free college” come readily to the lips of would-be reformers. Can we truly expect meaningful action on this?

Behold Exhibit A, courtesy of US Debt  

free college

We’ll get to Exhibit B in a bit.

Thus far the best-known and most thoroughly developed plan is the one advanced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, although all the cool kids of national politics are touting free college. The Sanders plan would apply only to public institutions, involving about 68 percent of all college students. The federal government would contribute two-thirds of the funding, an estimated $47 billion annually, on top of the $76 billion it spends now, with the states doing the rest at $23 billion per year on top of today’s $73 billion. Add it up: $219 billion, nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars per year. That’s a whole heap of money, pardner, even if the cost projections are accurate—and one need not be an exceptionally hardened cynic to imagine the project costing twice as much as predicted.

free college

This man has the most ambitious plan, and several presidential candidates are on board.

Sanders is talking about tuition and fees only. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii has proposed legislation that would cover the total cost of attendance, which would mean an $84 billion price tag in the first year, as opposed to Sanders’ picayune $47 billion. Thirty-two members of the House and Senate, including multiple declared presidential candidates, have co-sponsored the bill.

Research  by the Brookings Institution and the Tax Policy Center calls into question whether the taxes proposed would cover the free-college plans in addition to other sweeping reforms now under discussion in Washington, mostly proposed by the same people who promise us free college. If taxes don’t suffice, that would mean more deficit spending.

And as far as we can tell, none of this takes into account the astronomical cost of hiring new faculty and staff and constructing new classroom and residential facilities, dining halls, recreation centers, and all the other amenities we discussed in An Arm and a Leg. Even with the growing popularity and viability of online education, a large influx of new students due to the increased affordability of higher education would necessitate a considerable spate of hiring and construction. And let us not forget the creation and maintenance of a bureaucracy to administer the program. 

If applications increase faster than institutions expand, how will those colleges decide who gets admitted from that much-enlarged pool of applicants? What real or imagined inequities might arise, and what uproar might ensue, requiring untold billions of dollars for resolution? 

The notion of free higher education also raises concerns about whether quality would suffer because of further massification, a topic that lies outside the scope of this article, but it’s worthwhile here to predict that in the free-college scenario public institutions would expand their already growing use of adjunct professors and graduate assistants in teaching roles, seldom a recipe for optimal quality.

It’s also reasonable to suggest that a huge increase in the number of college graduates would lead to the devaluation of a degree as a means of distinguishing oneself. Some other criterion would emerge for determining who stands out, and undoubtedly it would be most readily available to families with money to spend on the kids, just as a degree is today. For a start, the value of a degree from a private college relative to one from a public institution would rise sharply. In the long run, free college could very well serve mainly to increase social stratification and promote frustration—and all at great cost.

And now for Exhibit B: The top panel is the same screen shot used in Exhibit A, while the bottom one is the same real-time readout exactly 24 hours later. Note the $707 million overnight increase in the federal deficit. 

free college

So are the voters and taxpayers willing to take the plunge into “free college”?

In the words of College Raptor:

If America were to move to a tuition-free college policy, where would the money come from? The short and simple answer is taxes. Who gets taxed seems to vary [depending] on who is talking, but it seems certain that the upper echelons of American society will see increased taxes if this passes. There is a likelihood that it will increase the upper middle-class as well. Or maybe it will all come from Wall Street speculation taxes. The point is, all we know is that someone will pay these dues through taxes, and the uncertainty of who will carry the burden is not making many Americans comfortable.

But Americans generally are not uncomfortable with simply appending a few more zeroes to the national debt and the federal deficit, which is what would happen in the likely event that new taxes came nowhere near paying for “free college.” Runaway debt is a habit that can only end in tears sooner or later. It would be ironic indeed if we destroyed our economy, and became a second-rate power and a byword to the nations, in the name of securing a better future for our children. Grandiose promises in combination with economic illiteracy and a refusal to face the fact of scarcity could get us there—and create more intense inequalities along the way. Stay tuned.

The Coaching Educator plans meanwhile to continue with our mission of helping students get into and succeed at the right college. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links in “References and Recommendations” below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

We hope you enjoyed “Free College.” We also recommend the following resources about college admissions and college costs:

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “From Obama to Trump: What to Expect in Higher Education, The Coaching Educator, 30 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/30/from-obama-to-trump-what-to-expect-in-higher-education/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

Culp, Paul. “What Accreditation Is and Why It Counts,” The Coaching Educator, 10 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/16/what-accreditation-is-and-why-it-counts/

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