The Corner


‘Free’ College Is a Bad Idea — Attaching Strings to It Doesn’t Help

One way for politicians to engage in grandstanding is to tell people they’re going to give them free stuff. Another is for them to tell people they have a plan to promote general prosperity. Twist those together and get get the current political hoopla over supposedly free college education with strings attached. That’s my topic in this article on the Martin Center’s site today.

Politicians start with the assumption that if more of their citizens had college credentials, they’d earn more and make the state better for business development. Then they assume that the best way to get more people into and through college programs is to subsidize them even more than ever — all the way down to being free. But to create the appearance of fiscal propriety, they mandate that the beneficiaries work and pay taxes in the state for some period of time. And on top of all that meddling, they’re apt to specify which kinds of college programs are beneficial enough to merit being “free.”

None of that helps.

It shifts costs where they don’t belong and interferes with labor market mobility. It also interferes with the market for education by “privileging” (to use a favorite word of the progressives) certain kinds of governmentally-run colleges over all other types of education and training.

States can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps with “free” education any more than they can with any other socialistic measure. Adam Smith had it right when he wrote, “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about in the natural course of things.” Sadly, that’s a message that most politicians just don’t care to hear.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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