by Ross Dubberly
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” renowned economist Milton Friedman was fond of saying. Yet, the fallacy of freebies is perhaps more fashionable today than ever, especially among my peers at the University of Georgia and elsewhere. And one of the most enticing freebies is “free college.” But there is no such thing as “free” anything—the cost of everything will be paid by someone, somewhere. It is only a matter of who, when, and how.
As economist Thomas Sowell once wrote,
Free college of course has an appeal to the young, especially those who have never studied economics. But college cannot possibly be free . . . [U]nder any economic system, [the] costs [of college] are either going to be paid or there are not going to be any colleges.
The question then, really, is: Who will pay? Should free-college activists have their way, the federal government would shift the financial burden off of the student who makes the choice to attend college—i.e., the consumer—and onto the taxpayers—i.e., people who have no choice in the matter. And of course, included under the umbrella of “taxpayers” are people who themselves have not attended college, which is morally dubious at best. Indeed, it seems hardly moral to ask a mechanic, plumber, or construction worker to subsidize some unknown student’s degree in Gender Studies.
Not to mention that artificially removing the burden of costs from the consumer would, as one might expect, incentivize waste. It would incentivize college attendance by both those not prepared for the rigors of a college curriculum and those not serious about a college education to begin with. Moreover, it would cause further “credential inflation,” the devaluation of the bachelor’s degree due to its pervasiveness and the need for an even higher formal qualification to distinguish oneself.
Although their primary concern is purportedly the high costs of higher education, free-college advocates fail to recognize that the current astronomical costs of college are largely, if not entirely, a result of the government’s already excessive involvement in higher education. That is to say, the more the government subsidizes colleges and universities, the more tuition prices rise.
Another disturbing yet seldom observed fact is the lack of empirical support for the notion that free college means a higher quality education for more people. As even taxpayer-funded NPR points out, “Would getting rid of tuition at public colleges and universities, by itself, give the United States ‘the most educated workforce in the world’? Probably not.”
Admittedly, the cost and quality of higher education is a serious problem in America. But the solution is not more meddling from the very institution—the federal government—that creates the high costs in the first place. Indeed, the solution is freedom, not free college. Only when there is a diminution of government involvement in higher education will we see a diminution in costs and elevation in quality.
Until then, however, we mustn’t allow the idea of “free college” to permeate our campuses. As the conservative activists on campus, it is our responsibility to ensure that our peers hear the truth: That a free education means a collective society, not a free one.
Ross Dubberly is the co-chairman of the University of Georgia Young Americans for Freedom chapter.