Think College Is Expensive? Wait Until It’s Free

Written by Staff

Support for free college is almost obligatory among progressives, but that doesn’t make it a good idea, especially in a country already being flooded with college graduates, wrote Jason L. Riley wrote in a Wall Street Journal column.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Riley earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He’s a member of The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

“It’s no shock that Democrats who want to challenge President Trump in 2020—Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and counting—have jumped on the free-tuition bandwagon,” Riley wrote.

Has the time come for free college?

Riley asked this question to Richard Vedder, an economic historian at Ohio University, and author of the 2004 book, “Going Broke by Degree,” which argues that federal subsidies aren’t the solution to rising college costs—quite the opposite.

College costs have risen whenever student aid was made more generous, Vedder told Riley.  Tuition is only about 20 percent of the total cost of attending college and if it’s subsidized, he expects colleges will raise non-tuition costs.

In addition, Vedder said most people going to college are not poor, but 40 percent of college students don’t graduate. About 10 percent of recent college grads came from the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution.

“We’ve had a decline in poor people graduating from college. More poor people are attending, but fewer are graduating. We have not really improved making college a vehicle for achieving the American dream,” Vedder said.

The U.S. is already flooded with college graduates

Even with unemployment less than 4 percent, the number of college grads is growing faster than jobs requiring a degree. By 2010, the U.S. had nearly 50 percent more employed college grads than jobs requiring a college degree, according to Vedder. More than 13 million bachelor’s degree holders were working jobs that don’t require one:

“As the professor sees it, many people who would be better off with a vocational degree or on-the-job training right out of high school are instead pursuing four-year degrees because tuition subsidies have distorted incentives,” Riley wrote.

“College isn’t for everyone, and pretending it is does more harm than good, sticking young adults with massive debt when they could have flourished taking another path. As the professor says, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being a welder who makes $150,000 a year.’”