Nothing is really free

by James Silberman

The amount of debt being racked up by college students is a startling problem. Nationally, members of the class of 2015 graduated with an average of over $35,000 of debt according to education finance expert Mark Kantrowitz.

This is clearly an issue that must be addressed, and making state universities tuition-free appears to be the favored solution of college students. This is evidenced by the massive support among millennials for Bernie Sanders. But is it that simple? In other words, is making college tuition-free enough to solve the complex problem of rising tuition costs?

In short, no.

First of all, nothing is free. I know. Shocking, right? “Free” tuition simply shifts the burden from the student to the taxpayer. Second, free tuition does nothing to alleviate the root causes of rising tuition costs. In fact, it would worsen them. Dinesh D’Souza, a prominent political commentator, uses the following illustration to explain why the shift of this burden is neither efficient nor fair.

Let’s pretend the government decided to make food free. If college is human right, surely food is as well?

If food was free, customers would not be concerned with how much they spend on food, or how much of that food they end up wasting because they know that someone else is picking up the tab. Similarly, the grocery stores can jack up the prices because they know customers aren’t concerned with how much the food costs because someone else is paying for it.

It isn’t difficult to project what happens next. Whoever is picking up this tab is getting cheated, and it won’t be long before they’re out of money and the whole system collapses on itself.

So who is this third person? It’s the taxpayer; A.K.A. all of us.

As you can see, there are massive inefficiencies created when something becomes “free.” Just like the food illustration, if tuition is free to the student, universities have no reason to be efficient with their funds. They can build huge new buildings, and give themselves all a raise and spend however much money they want. In fact, it would benefit them to do so. Big, expensive facilities make a school look good to prospective students. Sure, that means the annual cost per student to attend the school is now $70,000 instead of $40,000, but who cares! It’s all free!

Thus it goes with government-run institutions. Nothing will run fairly or efficiently as long as the person receiving the service is not the person paying for the service.

The answer to our problem is not more government, but less government. Make schools streamline their budgets and compete for students by offering competitive prices. The free market used to provide a college education for a sum of money that one could reasonably obtain working as a dishwasher during the summer months.

And just for the record, I am a student who is going to graduate with a large amount of debt, in the same boat as most of the people reading this. I am not a political tool being used by the “one-percent” or “the establishment” to pull one over on you guys. Free market solutions really do work and they make life better for more people. So let’s treat the root causes of our rising tuition problem and cut it out with the free college nonsense, shall we?

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