Friday, April 22, 2016

Can College Education Really Be Free?

Don Boudreaux writes:
Here’s a letter to a high-school student from Kansas City who e-mailed me this morning:
22 April 2016
Mr. Parker J________
Dear Mr. J________:
Thanks for your e-mail, and good luck writing the essay for your high-school newspaper!
You ask “What … could be the possible effects of making public universities free to attend? Would the benefits outweigh the costs?”  My answer is simple: it is impossible to make universities free, and any attempts to perform this impossible feat will create more costs than benefits.
Universities – whether private or public – are built of land and materials, and they require for their daily operation not only non-human resources such as electricity, books, computers, printers, projectors, lighting, elevators, and office furniture, but also lots of human labor: professors, administrators, and staff.  Each of these resources, both non-human and human, could be used in ways other than to supply classroom instruction and research at the collegiate level.  So to use these resources in colleges is to sacrifice those goods and services that we’d enjoy if these resources were not used in colleges.  These sacrifices are real costs, and they must be borne by someone.
Government can certainly shift more of these costs from students onto taxpayers.  But such a shifting does not eliminate these costs.  Indeed, such a shifting of costs away from the most direct users of colleges (students) onto other people (taxpayers) will cause students to use collegiate resources more carelessly.  (Think of what you’d order at a restaurant if you knew that the restaurant will pick up the tab for whatever you order as opposed to you knowing that you must personally pay for whatever meal you order.)  The result is that colleges become more costly.
Government can hide these higher costs for a while, but you and your fellow students will pay these costs eventually in the form of higher taxes when you enter the workforce and in the form of economic growth made slower because of the increasing waste of resources that “free” college entails.  (By the way, because I’m a tenured college professor, government attempts to make college “free” will likely cause my income to rise.  The reason is that such a policy will result in government funneling more and more taxpayer dollars into higher education.)
A final note: a big part of the cost of college – for many students the singlebiggest part of the cost – is not tuition and expenses.  It’s the income that students forego by attending college rather than working.  So even if by some miracle a Pres. Sanders makes all of the vast resources that colleges now use free, each and every college student will still unavoidably bear the significant cost of foregone income.
In short, neither colleges nor college attendance can possibly be made free, and attempts to make them appear to be free will only make them more expensive over time.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

The above originally appeared at Cafe Hayek


  1. ─ “What … could be the possible effects of making public universities free to attend? Would the benefits outweigh the costs?” ─

    I can tell you based on the experience of many in my generation who attended 'free' college in Mexico that one of the greatest hidden costs of 'free' college is the devaluation of the college degree in the market, to the point where employers were asking potential candidates not to come to appointments if they were graduates from this or that university, either because there are simply too many applying and because the quality of their education was very low.

    Most of these 'free' universities in Mexico became breeding grounds for Marxian radicals and social justice warriors, even more shill and ridiculous as those you find in U.S. colleges today.

  2. For an example of what college will become if it is "free", just look at any public high school and imagine it has dorms. What jobs can you get with your public high school diploma?