You don’t need to tell anyone at SMU how absurdly expensive college is these days. While SMU is a particularly expensive school, high tuition and student debt is a problem that is rampant nationwide. There are 40 million Americans with education debt, holding over $1.2 trillion in academic loans. This makes “free college” a particularly attractive political statement to make.
Many Democratic presidential candidates went after this potential political bounty in their most recent debate, with all of the frontrunners putting forth some form of plan to make college free or nearly free for students.
Free college is a nice idea, but implementing any of these plans could result in complete disaster. For starters, none of these candidates have nailed down how this will be paid for or how expensive it will be. Preliminary estimates from the campaigns range from $35 billion to $70 billion, but these are surely conservative estimates and do not take into account all costs.
While some might argue that the total price tag, even if higher than $70 billion, would be a drop in the bucket compared to defense and social security spending, this only will add onto our skyrocketing national debt. In addition to increased spending, free college plans could also stand to undermine our entire system of higher education.
If public institutions were free to students, what would stop them from increasing their costs overall and receiving $100,000 from the federal government for each student enrolled? Grade school and middle school education in America have already proven that we as a nation are really good at spending the most per student and not getting very much out of it. Cost controls would need to be imposed with any free college plan, and those might be altogether more effective pieces of legislation rather than handouts, and thus should be considered first.
Furthermore, making public education free could cause a mass exodus that would change the face of higher education radically. Who would invest over $60,000 a year in going to SMU or Harvard when UC Berkeley or Purdue are offering free tuition? Not only would private universities struggle, but public universities, which are already overflowing with students, would be pushed over the brink with the influx of new students.
Free college really is a nice idea, but these plans offered by the Democrats really are another Obamacare rollout waiting to happen. Free college parallels the Affordable Care Act because it is a nice-sounding plan but is so complex that the implementation will take years, disrupt key industries, and inflict high costs.
Making college free would create expenses and impact our system of higher education in ways that we cannot fully predict, and possibly in ways that we do not want. While the cost of higher education certainly does need to be discussed in this nation, offering free tuition is not the way to do it.