There is no such thing as ‘free education fully financed by the government’. A zero-tuition college education simply means that instead of the students bearing the cost of attaining their degrees the taxpayers bear it. Students and parents misperceive the price of education, considering it to be free, even though it comes out of their pockets in taxes.
And why should low-income taxpayers finance the education of wealthier students? Proponents of state-financed education argue that absence of government help would put higher education out of reach of poor students. But I tend to disagree in that there are no ‘poor college students’. College-caliber students possess great wealth in the form of human capital. Anyone headed for college has enormous wealth in the form of intellectual capital and will receive earnings from his/her college education.
So, the benefits of a college education are essentially reaped by the individual acquiring higher education. The future earnings of the individual typically constitute an adequate return on the gross investment in abtaining higher education. Moreover, providing free college education to all is a rather inefficient way to serve the interests of poor students since a large proportion of students who acquire higher education come from relatively well off families.
There are many negative aspects of government-financed higher education.
Free education leads to overproduction and waste. But, isn’t it good to have more young people with degrees? Don’t we need a more educated workforce for the more demanding jobs that will dominate our economy in the future? The answer to these questions is ‘no’. By putting more people in colleges we end up with unmotivated students who lower the standards demanded by higher education. In his book Generation X Goes to College, Peter Sacks explains how he was driven to make his courses intellectually vapid, easy and entertaining in order to improve student performance and keep his job. This is a result of classrooms being filled by indifferent students who want a degree with the lowest possible effort.
The producers of higher education in a zero-tuition system are the only ones having control over the quality of education. Financing of universities by the government leads to higher government control over them. Government officials regularly audit universities to check whether the money granted to them in the form of loans and research grants is being spent wisely. The downside of this is that the auditors may lack sufficient understanding of the technical specialities being evaluated. Also the government may enforce the hiring of faculty from minority groups, thus bringing down the quality of the teaching staff.
More undesirable is the effect on the thinking of the academics. The state-subsidized scholar is reluctant to unearth ideas that bring into question his livelihood and that of his colleages. He is encouraged by his superiors not to bite the hand that feeds him. Thus, there can be no freedom of thought and freedom to explore new ideas under such a system.
Most importantly, due to state financing of higher education, it is far removed from a free market. The cost of education is masked by the government subsidies. Government funding is a crucial intrusion into the market price of education. It is an intrusion which steadily raises the price to taxpayers, but reduces the perceived price of education to the educational establishment. As a result there is little incentive to control costs since they are already perceived as low. There is little incentive to promote innovations since people innovate when they feel the need to give consumer’s ‘their money’s worth’. Finally there is little incentive to respect the student who is the ‘customer’.
In conclusion, I feel that the conventional wisdom about college education is wrong.We don’t need free education to get more students into college; we need to end the government subsidies so that college costs will be borne only by willing parties. We don’t need to try to make college attendance universal; we need to allow people to choose for themselves the type and extent of education that best suits them. Making college education fully government-financed goes against the basic objective of higher education – to allow the intellectual cream of society to specialize in their chosen field of interest.