Higher Education Watch
The Case Against Free College

From the Manhattan Institute’s Preston Cooper, one of the most clear and concise arguments you will read against arguments for further federal subsidies of higher education:

Advocates of federally funded “free” or “debt-free” college assert that society, as well as the affected individuals, would benefit from moving more students through higher education. Instead, experience in the U.S. and elsewhere suggests that the opposite would happen: more students would enroll in college; a high percentage (a higher percentage, quite possibly, than now, as more ill-prepared students enrolled) would continue to drop out; wage premiums for graduates would decline; colleges that desperately need to improve outcomes for students would face even fewer incentives to reform; and taxpayers would foot a skyrocketing bill.

Read the whole report, which highlights the fact that “only one-third of college enrollees end up in jobs requiring college degrees.” Millions of students are spending tens or hundreds of thousands on college, only to get jobs that they could have technically performed after high school. This isn’t only because many schools fail to provide a high quality education; it’s because, thanks to credential inflation, many employers use the BA as a kind of filtering mechanism—an indication that a person is most likely competent and reliable—even if the job they are trying to fill doesn’t demand any post-secondary skills or knowledge. Needless to say, this is a sign of deep inefficiencies: our economy would be much better off if people were hired based on stuff learned, rather than time served.

The college plans floated by Democratic candidates, by pumping more money and students into higher education system, would exacerbate these inefficiencies. Those plans could be defended on the grounds that expanding access for the underserved is worth this efficiency tradeoff. But it’s important to remember that so many students are going to college today that we have reached the point of diminishing returns. It’s time to try to expand access by shaking up higher education and increasing competition, rather than doubling down on something that seems to be working less and less well.

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