Phi Beta Cons

Will Students Value What They Receive for Free?

It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with all of Hillary Clinton’s plans to throw tax money at college students.

“Founders and early employees” of entrepreneurial startups are promised a three year delay in repayment of student loans, and as much as a $17,500 forgiveness after five years. Funny, I thought the motivation of these young people was to develop a better mousetrap and cash in on millions of dollars from IPO’s or outright sale of their technology to other companies. I’m not sure a few thousand dollars is of much interest to them, relatively speaking.

Maybe Hillary actually thought about this, so she broadened the offering and announced her well-reported proposal to offer “free tuition” to students whose families make less than $85,000. But even relatively well-heeled families making up to $125,000 will qualify for this perk just five years from now.

As Jane Shaw covered in her post a couple of weeks ago, studies have shown that 60% of the increase in federal funding of student loans gets gobbled up by the colleges themselves, in the form of higher tuition or reduced aid packages, so this also seems like a fairly certain way to waste money without solving the problem of escalating tuition.

As valid as all of this debate is, though, I think it might be missing another important fact. Does anybody really value something that comes free?

A person will take great pains caring for an auto that he spent years saving to afford. But would that person exhibit the same level of care for a company-owned vehicle? Doubtful.

Several years ago,  Philadelphia Airport management installed beautiful new carpeting in their concourses — but had to place trash cans throughout the concourses to catch rain water leaking through the roof. Would a homeowner pay to install new carpet before fixing a leaking roof? Of course not, but since it was other’s people’s money in this case, things were done exactly backward.

It’s much the same situation for college students. Based on my thirteen years of experience teaching at a well-regarded liberal arts college, I consistently found that the most conscientious students, the ones who really worked hard to actually learn, were the ones who were largely paying their own way through school. Many of them worked jobs on campus, and a few even held down full-time employment while attending classes. None of them took longer than four years to graduate, and they always lit up the classroom with their curiosity, energy, and ability to assimilate information.

We value most what we work hard to acquire. If it has no cost, it has no value. Let the free market set higher education value and costs, like it does for cars, computers, and toaster ovens. We have better things for the politicians to do with our own hard-earned tax dollars. 

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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