What it would cost to make public college tuition-free

My daughter, who by the way earned a free ride through college through merit scholarships, brought this to my attention today, from a recent piece in The Atlantic:

Here’s Exactly How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free

A mere $62.6 billion dollars!

According to new Department of Education data, that’s how much tuition public colleges collected from undergraduates in 2012 across the entire United States. And I’m not being facetious with the word mere, either. The New America Foundation says that the federal government spent a whole $69 billion in 2013 on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks, work study funding. And that doesn’t even include loans.

If we were we scrapping our current system and starting from scratch, Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today.

Of course, we’re not going to start from scratch (and I’m not even sure we should want to make state schools totally free). But I like to make this point every so often because I think it underscores what a confused mess higher education finance is in this country…


32 thoughts on “What it would cost to make public college tuition-free

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I don’t think you read it, Doug.

    The point wasn’t, “Let’s make public college free.” In fact, the author says, “I’m not even sure we should want to make state schools totally free.” The point that interested me was that currently, the government is already paying MORE than that on various programs designed to help people pay for college.

    I would think you’d find that interesting…

    But let’s explore your objection…

    The author DOES note the correlation between this situation and our healthcare situation. Basically, you have two powerful threads in U.S. politics — most Americans would like to make higher education (and healthcare) more accessible and affordable, but there is this powerful sentiment against just doing the obvious thing and paying for it through our tax dollars (represented by you with your grumbling about “let someone else pay for it,” which of course is inaccurate, but does accurately express your strong feelings on the subject).

    So we get these bizarre, complex, roundabout, tiptoe-around-the-issue “solutions” that end up costing more and delivering less-satisfactory outcomes…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      At this point I’ll pause long enough to say to both Doug and Michael that there is no need to cut defense spending, as much as y’all might want to.

      The premise here is that the money is already being spent on higher ed, just not efficiently…

  2. Mark Stewart

    The reason college aid is higher than the cost to cover public school total tuition is that this number also includes assistance at private institutions – and at diploma mills.

    Making public schools tuition free will assuredly end diploma mills as we now know them, but will also do nothing but inflate the value of a private school education.

    Higher education and healthcare are not the same thing; if anything they are polar opposites. Both are theoretically based on accessibility, true, but in reality one is rightly viewed as a meritocracy (as some combination of intellectual horsepower and socioeconomic standing) and the other rightly viewed as a universal need (need, not right).

    1. Bart

      Great observation and comments Mark.

      My only observation about diploma mills is that they are becoming more popular and mainstream than one would have believed just a few years ago. Being acquainted with someone who earned their masters from one of the diploma mills and comparing the effort, time, and requirements to another personal acquaintance who earned theirs through a university, it was surprising that both had basically the same requirements and effort to obtain their degree.

      Considering the number of students who want to continue their education but due to reasons that may be beyond their control, the ability to earn a degree from an online university is gaining in popularity. The problem will always be oversight and accountability of the institutions. I did check with a couple of legitimate universities who offer online degree programs and found them to be as strict as on campus participation.

    2. Mab

      “The reason college aid is higher than the cost to cover public school total tuition is that this number also includes…”

      …that nebulous budgetary allocation required to provide pie jobs for elitists’ spouses/others/etc.s, who [underline] need [underline] to appear to have something apparently meaningful and useful to appear to be doing all day.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    In the UK, and elsewhere, advanced education is free, but very competitive. We should try harder to ensure that those who can benefit from it, get it, and steer others into more helpful options like tech and trade schools!
    The student debt burden is a ticking time bomb for our economy.

    1. Mark Stewart

      If it’s a ticking time bomb for the graduates, then it would be one for the country as a whole, too.

      I agree, though, we have lots of sub-mediocre colleges and universities and too few quality trade schools. I still don’t see what the attraction of a “junk” reputation degree is, no matter how “difficult” it may appear to acquire, as Bart says. Even is South Carolina there are way too many institutions of lower learning. But it isn’t always their fault; they have no network of supporters to help create opportunity for graduates.

      The “value” of a degree-granting institution can best be obtained by looking at its endowment history. If it doesn’t have one, in a meaningful way, then it isn’t a credible player.

      1. Juan Caruso

        “But it isn’t always their fault; they have no network of supporters to help create opportunity for graduates.” Mark S.

        If support networks were the real solution, socialism might be a realistic answer. Opportunity, howard, can be earned by preparation. It is true education that is given, or being withheld.

          1. Juan Caruso

            Socialism, KF, is a noncompetitive answer, and competition has been responsible for the preferred goods and services throughout history.

            “In socialism the powerful become rich, and in capitalism the rich become powerful.”

            In the U.S. progressives have inculcated the underclasses with fatal notions of entitlements to earn more than menial jobs pay. Their mindest, quite logically by trade union standards, has become “I don’t want to be on the bottom of the dignity scale, regardless of pay”.

            Under U.K. socialism, there is less upward opportunity for those truly motivated than under U.S. capitalism. Those who begin as restroom or parking meter attendants in the U.K. are more than likely still there. Hope is not valued. Not so in the U.S. and examples of deserving merit prove so.

            Shame on socialism lovers for weraing blinders; recent news:

            1. http://goo.gl/0GrD2N
            2. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19964
            3. http://goo.gl/2hFIom
            4. http://goo.gl/BS0o00

            Perhaps, instead of your usual one-liner non sequitors, KF, you may want to
            support your socialist dreams with a few facts, although your history here continually illustrates otherwise. And that of someone who professes top scholarship and passing the bar.

    2. Silence

      As someone a decade out from graduate school, and still carrying 50k in student loans, I can attest to the burdensome nature of student debt. Of course my interest rate is 2.5%, so I’m in no hurry to pay off these monsters. Just 20 years to go!

      1. Mark Stewart

        So while you will pay out $63.5k over the twenty years for the $50,000 loan, the net present value of this expense, on a pre-tax basis, will only be $33.6k (@7% – a fair alternate investment rate). Your after tax benefit will make this actual educational cost practically zero over the period. All from a little upfront effort and initiative.

        Gotta love inflation…or more accurately disparate money factors.

        1. Silence

          Since one of those degrees paid for with borrowed money was an MBA, our calculations were very similar… The original number was about $75k and I think I used a slightly lower discount rate.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    Let’s apply a little supply and demand analysis here. If you make the cost of attending a four year public university “free” (I know tuition isn’t the whole bill, but let’s just assume it is.) then you’re radically reducing the cost of a service.

    When the cost of a service goes from very expensive to free, what happens? Demand increases through the roof. If you made a four year public university free, you would get much, *much* higher demand at the expense of private colleges. Now, remember, not all private colleges are the for-profit kind. We’re talking about Davidson, Vanderbilt, W&L, U Miami, Rice, Duke…. You’re going to make public institutions significantly more attractive than their private counterparts.

    Is that necessarily a good thing? I don’t know. Will it encourage students to take their education more or less seriously to not have any payment associated with it?

    What will selectivity look like when you have significantly higher applications to USC? You can’t admit everyone who applies. Assume that the freshman class size has to stay constant. The kids who were smart enough to get into Duke, Rice, or MIT now apply to USC because it’s free. Where does that leave kids who were at the edge of getting in beforehand? Are we now crowding them out? If you assume that the freshman class size stays more or less constant (and it kind of has to) then you’re not educating more people, you’re just making subsidizing public education vs. private education. Does that benefit the country at large?

    It seems nice and “feel good” to say that public institutions would be free, but what’s the overall benefit other than to the public institutions?

    Also, you’d have to stop public universities from raising their tuition if the feds have guaranteed the full price. Doesn’t that kind of go down the road of giving the federal government too much power over what are now state-run institutions? Once the feds get their dollars flowing, they can start to dictate lots of things other than tuition, as well.

    Interesting thought experiment, but its seems much more complex than at first blush.

    1. Doug Ross

      That’s why I said it was a fantasy. People who like “free” stuff never stop to consider the economic consequences of those theories. It just makes them feel better because they are spending other people’s money to get the feeling of being generous.

      I believe gasoline should be free. Think of how much better everyone would be if we didn’t have to pay for it!

      1. Mark Stewart

        Which is why demand for private colleges (at least the better/best ones) would actually increase if public schools became tuition free, despite the increased cost differential.

          1. Mark Stewart

            High School kids are far less mobile, secondary education starts to get a lot more like the healthcare situation…

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      Well, you don’t assume a stable class size. You figure out what the need is for four year degrees; you determine who is best able to attain them; and you fund that. Probably means significant class shrinkage, but it makes more sense than lots of folks with two years of a history degree and debt…..

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Whoa! Who’s going to do all this decision making?

        Who determines what the “need is” for four year degrees? How do you even go about that? And we’re going to end up with *smaller* freshman classes? How does that benefit anyone?

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          The folks who study this predict where the jobs are, and there’s a huge disconnect. 80% or so of students are going for a four year degree, yet 80% of jobs will require a two year tech training. Many of the four years won’t finish and will have debt and no useful skills.

          I mean, does anyone really think the Charleston School of Law needs to exist?

    3. JesseS

      I don’t know, you have a lot of universities offering free courses online (while they work the bugs out, I’m assuming). These courses aren’t easy. A 101 astronomy weeder from Duke will have you knee deep in trig by the first hour (I was kind of surprised, MIT and Stanford’s “weeders” were cakewalks in comparison). Eventually this is going to make headway and blow the University of Phoenix types out of the water with a better product at a better price.

      We can complain that there will be too many students, with too many degrees, those students didn’t pass the meritocracy test of funding and that it desecrates the holy order of supply and demand, but honestly I don’t see the current situation as being anything better. Why not give the student a few killer courses for next to nothing before they accrue thousands and thousands of dollars in debt that turns into mass defaults at the lower end of the economic spectrum?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *