“Free” College Education

Jun 2016 //
Economics

All colleges have expenses, and these expenses must be borne by someone.  Yes, we can make college education free to students and their families, but only by shifting the costs to others.  If those bearing the costs amount to society at large, we can say these costs have been “socialized.”  If taxpayers primarily are to pay the costs—especially income tax payers—then the costs are shifted more to higher-income earners, since they pay the lion’s share of income taxes.  Like most other issues, there are intelligent points to be made in support of and against socializing the costs of college education.  If more college entrants led to more graduates and a more skilled workforce, other things equal, economic growth would likely increase.  That would be good for our investments across the board.  However, other things are seldom equal.  For example, tax dollars paid to support college education are not available for taxpayers to use for other purposes, including alternate forms of education.  Thus, it is not possible to say without reservation that the benefits of subsidized college education would (or would not) outweigh its costs.  We’re not going to take a stand, other than to suggest that the debate on this issue— and similar ones—would probably be more productive if we stopped using the word “free.”