The Movement for “Free” College Seems Doomed, If Not Already Dead



Hillary Clinton, had she won the presidency, was going to invest $450 billion in covering tuition costs at public universities.  At least she said she was.  Where the money would come from was always a matter much in doubt, along with the supposed outcomes, from a policy standpoint, of turning university education into just another entitlement program, like food stamps.

But Hillary Clinton, contrary to her expectations, failed to win the presidency, and the cost-of-tuition question stays where it long has been: muddled by various factors, not least by unwise, unaffordable proposals to make the government our chief supplier of tuition.

Bernie Sanders’ love of free, meaning taxpayer-subsidized, government programs was Mrs. Clinton’s inspiration in the tuition matter, as in so much else.  In the bidding war for parent and student votes, she went right along with the notion of making college a reward instead of an aspiration.  Here, here’s the money, she appeared to say.  Take it, what’s the matter with you?!

But the idea didn’t really get talked about much during the campaign, save at rallies attended by lots of young people.   There must have been some sense out there at the grassroots that free tuition was a proposal ranking with pie in the sky by and by.  In addition to which, eyebrows rose at the notion that the federal government was seemingly going to give unneeded help to the distinctly non-impoverished, whose parents regard tuition as pocket change.

Nothing about “free” college tuition made sense.  But, like many another non-sense-making idea, this one had beneficial aspects.  It exposed the idea of unaffordable college as a problem of the second or even third rank.   In fact, most colleges are rather generous when it comes to laying on financial help.   Moreover, the hyper-availability of federal loans for tuition has had the perverse effect of discouraging universities from keeping costs low. Hey, the feds were paying!  We should take the money and run.  Government-paid tuition would have entrenched the lack of desire to care about expenses.

Dead, dead, dead seems the idea of federal subsidized tuition: which frees colleges and universities – and the states that operate them – to devise remedies of their own, away from the helpful stare of the federal education establishment.  Things might have turned out worse.

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