Free college education for all would ignore economics


Aby Sobotka-Briner | Staff Illustrator

By Timothy Nerozzi / Columnist

Free university education seems to be the latest demand in the realm of college liberalism, but as any economics major will tell you, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Last Thursday, student groups, such as Students for Bernie Sanders, organized a Million Student March across American universities, including the University of Pittsburgh. At Pitt, students taped paper with their college debt totals on their backs and marched up and down Forbes Avenue, chanting and picketing toward campus and the higher education system at large.

The main gripe of the protesters was the skyrocketing price of tuition. The students were demanding various forms of government intervention to alleviate this trend, according to the event’s Facebook page. Some of the goals outlined in the event page included “ending student debt” and “making current student debt affordable.”

Still, one may argue even if the quality is high, the price is becoming more and more disproportionate to the value. They’re not wrong. We do have a major college debt crisis in this country, and it does need to be addressed. To do this though, the government needs to pull out of the education system, not get more involved.

Supply and demand theory has never been more relevant than in the discussion of college tuition in the United States. Young people today are enrolling in volumes never before seen in this country, so demand is at an all-time high. When demand is too high, institutions only have two options, increase the supply — admissions, in this case — or increase the cost.

Because it’s nearly impossible for universities to provide enrollment to such a large demand for higher education, tuitions have skyrocketed. This raises another question, how is the demand for education so high if the prices are so unaffordable for many students?

We got to where we are today through well-meaning government intervention. The state encourages high school students to take out government loans — averaging around $36,000 according to the Wall Street Journal — that they cannot pay back to go to schools that they cannot afford.

In 2012, annual student loan originations reached $120 billion, with the United States backing 90 percent, also according to the Wall Street Journal.

Subsidies drive more demand, demand begets supply and the entire cycle repeats.

Subsidies encourage college attendance amongst those who cannot afford it, and serve to further discourage alternatives to college education. Vocational schools, trade schools and entrepreneurship are thrown to the wayside.

In this way, our glut of students shoved into universities by government subsidies and student loans are the direct reason for both the high cost and near-required nature of college diplomas. It’s a natural consequence of the government going all-in on meddling with the free market of higher education.

So the extremist stance of free public universities would not only lower the world class quality of our schools, but completely devalue the education we receive. Myself and many others are at college foremost for personal growth and broader outlooks, but I do not besmirch the students here for monetary prospects, whose investment in a better future is being devalued.

If the government begins socializing public schools and providing free college for all students without making college more exclusive academically, the value of a diploma will drop to an all-time low. When everyone has a college degree, it becomes worthless, serving to make you stand out no better than a high school diploma.

Competition is what drives innovation. It’s the most basic principle of economics, yet competition is often overlooked by today’s “right to higher education” socialist movements on college campuses. When businesses — or in this case, colleges — aren’t artificially propped up by the government, they are forced to provide as high-quality a service as possible for as low of a price as possible, lest they lose their business and die off.

Colleges would have no incentive to spend money to make their education as high quality as possible if they don’t have to compete for profits. If a college is guaranteed through governmental funding to stay around indefinitely, what drive is there to innovate and offer better quality education to its students?

Not much, apparently. This is why U.S. colleges, not European colleges with free tuition, consistently top the charts as the best in the world, which is the reason why a degree from U.S. institutions of learning is so desirable.

On the U.S. News and World Report Global University Rankings, one of the most widely referenced publications of its kind, U.S. universities run the show. Out of the top 20 universities in the world, only four aren’t located in America. U.S. News and World Report goes on to mention that the United States has welcomed “886,052 undergraduate and graduate students” to American higher education from foreign countries just this year. Students from all over the world flock to America for our education, regardless of price, because they know it’s the best they can get.

If countries want to fully finance college education for all students without killing the quality and value of the education, the only option is to drastically limit admissions by academic performance. The demand would be simply unserviceable in its entirety.

Vocational schools and entrepreneurship need to be pushed as genuine, equal opportunity alternatives to college. It is only after lowering the attendance at universities and turning college back into an option instead of an obligation that we will be able to find ways to reduce tuition for our struggling student population.

It’s not an easy situation, and I sympathize with those who want everyone to have the ability to pursue the higher education they choose, but it’s simply not economically possible in our country. Any attempts to seize more control over higher education on the part of the government will only harm the quality of our college system.

The best thing the government can do for students is to leave our education alone.

Timothy primarily writes on free speech and media culture for The Pitt News.

Write to him at [email protected]