Why College Should Be Free

Let’s start with the rich private schools. Universities with large endowments can easily afford to cover the entire cost of college for every student.

Take Princeton University. Princeton has the 4th largest endowment, but it generates the largest annual return on investments per student, more than $2.3 million. (My estimate, based on the typical percentage of investment return for endowments documented by Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.)

The profit figure comes to between $1M and $1.7M per student for Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, and many others are not far behind. Clearly, these universities have no need for student fees of any kind, even when all the other things the endowment provides—new buildings, endowed chairs, etc.—are counted.

Rich universities can easily pay
from endowment profits.

My rough rule of thumb for such universities is this: If 5% of per student earnings on endowment is more than what it costs to attend, all students should attend free. If student costs exceed this percentage, each student should be subsidized up to that 5% figure. That still leaves 95% of investment profits for the university to play with. It also leaves the university more inclined to receive donations from happy graduates and their parents.

All public universities should be completely free, including living costs, no matter what it takes to get there, because the entire country would benefit from it. This would require recognition that the lip service we’ve always claimed about education is actually true: it has great value for individuals and the country. That means we should not stop with high school, but send our young adults to college as well.

The entire country would benefit.

Impossible? Not at all. In total, 43 countries provide free post-secondary education, including a dozen or so in Europe. Even poor countries have it. Many of these provide not only student fees but living expenses as well.

Now, why on earth would they do that? The costs of college are back breaking, and sure to bring these countries to bankruptcy. The answer is simple: Not only do these plans not create bankruptcy, they result in greater affluence and a more educated population. Nor do they have graduates who are drowning in student debt, as we do.

Those countries pay up front. We pay higher costs, plus social costs, plus the cost of greater inequality, later on.

Forty-three countries provide
free post-secondary education.

The single element that is most likely to create higher personal income is an earned college degree. Greater earnings means greater national wealth and equality, because people can afford to pay for things that were previously unaffordable, thus bringing more money into circulation and requiring more workers to satisfy added needs. Yet many promising students are simply too poor for college.

Of greater importance is that higher education creates a much more informed public, which in turn brings improved democracy and equality, as well as a higher quality work force. All these things are very important in several ways.

Algeria, Barbados, Ecuador, Mauritius,
Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay,
and many more pay for college,
but are not rich.

 Whoa! you say. We can’t possibly afford to send everyone to college. It’s just too expensive.

I say to you, what is it about Algeria, Barbados, Ecuador, Mauritius, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and many more, that allows them to afford this expense that we, the richest nation the world has ever seen, can’t seem to manage? These examples are not even rich European countries. Many of them, in fact, are poor.

Doesn’t that mean that every student must be admitted to a college, regardless of their qualifications? The opposite is true. Every student admitted must meet the requirements of the college that admits them, and the colleges can afford to be fussy. If the students can’t meet the requirements, they must not be admitted. Remember too that being admitted only means you got through the door. That’s just the beginning, and if you don’t perform you will flunk out. In fact, a free system would mean that colleges were more strict in requiring good work.

Colleges could afford
to demand student performance.

Under the system we have today, where colleges compete for limited funding based on how many students enroll, there is great pressure on all teachers to pass along students who don’t do satisfactory work, because not to do so reduces student population and therefore funding. That tendency would be reversed with free education, because every college has de facto limited enrollment simply because admissions cannot be infinitely large. Particularly with prestigious universities, there would always be someone who missed the cut by a hair, and wants your seat.

The facts of free college education comes back to the usual thing. Certain politicians and capitalists and their followers cannot bring themselves to believe that anything that helps the poor and average, rather than people who have no need for more money, can be beneficial. The conservative rich have had four decades to demonstrate the truth of this belief, and have utterly failed to do so. What the data show instead is that only the wealth of the already rich has increased in that time. Over the same period inequality has increased sharply, and income for most of us has remained stagnant or actually fallen. Meantime, our democracy has suffered, and our workforce is falling behind.

It’s time for some changes.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Bosacker’s Blog and commented:
    Most civilized countries make higher education availble to students accordingly prepared. We seem to envy third world country baronies.


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