“Free college tuition sounds pretty good, especially if you’re a parent with college tuition looming in the back of your mind. Who doesn’t like free things?” writes Dr. Anne Bradley.
The truth is, making things free only makes them more expensive.
If you lower the cost of something it won’t make it any less scarce. And if students do not pay for the costs of education it just shifts the burden to somebody else who does pay.
Eliminating prices doesn’t change the level of scarcity of any item, college included. Making college free of charge doesn’t make it free to provide. Professors still need to be paid. The lights still need to be turned on. The janitorial staff is still required.
Reducing or eliminating prices causes greater consumption. If we reduce the price of college to zero, we will encourage a lot more kids to try college even if that’s not the best choice for them.
Today, college dropout rates are at an all-time high. Only half of the students who enroll in college this year will graduate. This is a tragic unintended consequence of inducing more students to attend college, regardless of their needs. It has also dramatically driven up college costs, making college incredibly expensive for everybody.
Policymakers cannot eliminate prices any more than meteorologists can fend off snowstorms. Snowstorms happen. So do prices. The difference is that prices are critical to better stewardship of our scarce resources.
Prices bring together the people who want to consume college the most with those who can supply it best.
If we want more people to be able to afford and attend college, we need to allow the market, through buyers and sellers, to innovate, create alternatives, and compete to lower costs. In college, as with any other good, prices provide transparency and encourage innovation—we need more of that, not less.