The crazy notion of free college


During the 2016 US Presidential campaign, populist candidate Bernie Sanders among others notably sounded the call for free college. Voices on the right quickly and repeatedly denounced the idea. With 4-year private school tuition bills having already shot past the quarter of a million dollars mark, any program government program providing for free college would clearly break the bank.

Or would it?

To answer that question, it’s instructive to deconstruct exactly what “free college” of the sort espoused by Senator Sanders would entail.

  • Sanders were not talking about private higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about out-of-state public higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about every expense–just tuition and fees.
  • Sanders were not talking about free college for all–rather, based on need.

A back-of-the envelope calculation taking into account tuition and fees for need-based attendees of both 2-year and 4-year in-state public institutions yields an annual cost of less than $50B.

$50B may sound like a lot, but it’s less than 1% of our annual $7T government outlay. By comparison, the government spends on the order of 20% each on health care and social security/pensions respectively as well as roughly 10% on defense.

Maybe it’s not the money. Maybe it’s the notion of free. But is free education really all that radical a notion?

As it stands today, we already offer 13 years of free education. “Free college” in any practical sense merely adds another 2-4 years for a small subset of our high school graduates.

Education is the key to national competitiveness and societal advance. Investing a bit more in in effective higher education isn’t the crazy notion that it might seem.

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