What’s Wrong with Guaranteeing a Free College Education?

Bernie Sanders failed in his bid for the presidency, but one of his major policy proposals—which helped to garner his much-discussed college student support—of guaranteeing free tuition at public universities and colleges is likely to continue to be pushed. It’s not surprising that this notion has gained traction, in light of the deepening student debt problem, which I’ve thought for some time might be the next economic crisis. The Democratic Party’s 2016 platform embraced a version of the idea and it’s likely that sometime in the future, if they control the presidency and Congress with a sufficiently large majority, they’ll push legislation on this. Debt problem or not, what’s wrong with the federal government essentially making higher education a right—in fact, a right that’s subsidized?

We can almost go down a list of pointed questions and likely problems with this. First, what possible right or prerogative does one have to ask others to pay for him to go to college? Higher education is hardly a necessity—something that one’s life depends on. It’s not equivalent to a person starving and with only the federal government there to provide him food. Second, why should the taxpayers—many of whom are of more modest means—have to foot the bill so others who may come from more financially advantaged backgrounds can have a free ride and the chance to advance far beyond them in material success?

Sanders’ proposal was supposed to be paid for by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculators. Besides not being clear all who fit into this category, anyone who believes that no one else will be taxed for this is indulging in fantasy.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

But wait, some will say, won’t we all in the end be advantaged by this, since it will mean more people going to college and so—considering that college graduates have higher lifetime earnings—more tax dollars flowing back into governmental coffers? This, however, is a very indirect, not completely certain return on the investment. Also, if this is the criterion why not subsidize or favor other activities carried out by a broader range of people that could also make them more dependable taxpayers in the future? Incidentally, the very students who think this will give them such a great opportunity today will be the ones left holding the bag as taxpayers to sustain it in the future—when it will become massively more expensive than it would be even now.

Free college education, in fact, is just another expression of the entitlement culture. The benefits of the welfare state have long since spread to above the poverty line, so why not include also the children of middle and upper middle class families? Too many of their parents not only give them abundant material comforts, but also go out of their way to insure that they are ensconced in their “safe spaces” and don’t fall prey to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—that is, are “helicopter parents.” So, why should the state not become part of the effort? It’s a transformed version of in loco parentis. The problem is, of course, that this like everything else about the entitlement culture weakens personal responsibility. It won’t exactly help the new generation of young adults to become mature men and women or well-formed citizens who inevitably will face the realization that both individuals and nations can’t pass their obligations onto others if they are to thrive.

As mentioned, the student debt crisis is genuine. Like so many other things these days, however, people want to turn to the very government that caused the problem in the expectation that more of the same will produce a solution. The federal student loan and grant programs, inaugurated under LBJ’s “Great Society,” were supposedly going to be the answer to the dreams of so many young people for a college education that was previously unreachable. What they did, in fact, was to trigger an ongoing spiraling of college costs—substantially outstripping the rate of inflation—that ultimately led to the debt crisis. Colleges and universities felt free to go in “new directions” since the trough of federal—that is, taxpayer—dollars was always assured. So, they got diverted from their basic mission and began to provide a whole range of untraditional—often, not very sound—academic programs, new student services to keep their charges happy, and expanded physical facilities and amenities. The explosion of staff positions—easily outstripping the number of faculty who are right at the center of the institutions’ academic mission—accompanied this. So did the lowering of standards, as higher education was now accessible to more students—often irrespective of merit or ability—and started to look both like a right and an imperative (suddenly one needed to go to college “to get ahead”). Almost certainly, all these trends will intensify if we have a national system of free tuition.

What’s more, given current conditions on the typical American university or college campus, such a system will have the effect of reinforcing an environment where views outside the leftist mainstream are little tolerated, serious debate about different ideas hardly evident, and students are not only poorly formed intellectually but never even learn to think critically.

Taking part in the existing programs—almost all U.S. higher education institutions, public and private, do so—opened the door to unprecedented federal regulation. Compliance has become a major, costly effort with staff people having to be hired just to handle this. Regulation and the efforts to keep up with it will certainly expand with federally guaranteed free tuition. Kevin James of the American Enterprise Institute says that this will mean that the institutions will become even more bureaucratized than they already are—a major trend in higher education for many decades—with the result that they will be increasingly unresponsive to changing student needs. Don’t be surprised, by the way, if part of a heightened regulatory scheme will be a nationally mandated curriculum. That’s not likely to be a positive development, as we’ve seen with common core at the pre-college level. Many private institutions may also then adopt such a national curriculum voluntarily, as they would look to the predominant public colleges as setting the standard and think they have to follow it. Indeed, their hands may be forced as the accrediting agencies may come to expect it.

While it’s true that in the encyclical Pacem in Terris Pope St. John XXIII listed education among his catalogue of rights (a right “pertaining to moral and cultural values”), as far as “advanced studies” were concerned he spoke merely about devising some means to provide them for the “gifted members of society” (#13). It was hardly something, then, that merit was to play no part in or that had to be provided free, to say nothing of state-controlled institutions having a preferred place.

The free higher education scheme now talked about, however, would do exactly that by guaranteeing tuition-free public colleges and universities across the land. There is no question that this would further the financial advantage that public higher education already has over private—at a time when private institutions are already beginning to close. This is an advantage, by the way, that the performance record of the public institutions doesn’t necessarily show that they deserve.

While the state institutions would gain a decisive advantage over the private ones, there would be a cruel irony if a Sanders-type scheme were adopted: they would almost not be state institutions anymore, as the federal government would gain much more control over them.

It would also likely intensify another troubling trend of the last several decades: overcredentialism. With more people having easy access to higher education, possessing a college degree will become the minimal requirement to enter more and more kinds of jobs—regardless of whether college training is truly needed or even relevant for them. An experience like my son had of needing a bachelor’s degree in communications to get a job “working the board”—that is, pressing buttons—in a local television station will become the rule in more and more fields. That, in turn, will likely further debase the value, status, and compensation levels of the blue collar and physical labor-type jobs that society depends on—and with it cause further cultural confusion about the entire subject of work.

Guaranteed free public higher education will also pave the way for what, in effect, will be more corporate welfare. We could expect to see an uptick of companies avoiding their responsibilities to train their workforce by passing it onto government. We see this now with the community colleges and expanding the regimen of the freebie will only increase the tendency.

The entitlement mentality will also expand among the public higher education institutions themselves. As we all know, once government gives a benefit—or even sets up a program of some kind—it quickly develops a constituency and dislodging it becomes highly improbable. We can expect the institutions to fine-tune their lobbying skills—in fact, hire the best lobbyists their money can buy—to keep the free-tuition scheme in place once enacted. One recalls the high-powered lobbying of the California public colleges and universities when, after years of free tuition for state residents, governors like Ronald Reagan moved to change that.

By the way, ultimately California had to impose tuition and student fees for the obvious reason that the financial burden on the state became too great. A similar burden will happen nationally with the free-tuition scheme now being proposed.

Finally, one wonders if the free-tuition guarantee will not cause a sharp increase in what has already become a big problem: defaulting on higher education loans. Some—maybe many—of the people drowning in debt from past student loans may think that if it’s suddenly become an entitlement for students, why shouldn’t they be able to share retroactively in it?

Like many seductive governmental initiatives of the past half-century, federally guaranteed free college tuition holds every promise of not only being an albatross for taxpayers and an incredible economic drain but making worse in multiple ways the whole struggling enterprise of American higher education.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...