You can go to college for free if Senator Bernie Sanders becomes President. So, does that mean professors will teach and conduct research for no salary? Will administrative staff decline their paychecks out of the goodness of their hearts? Will maintenance and grounds personnel turn charitable so students can attend free? Of course not. Since substantial costs must still be paid to run colleges, you the taxpayer will be sent the bill. Or, perhaps Sanders will borrow the money and lop it on to the $22.3 trillion national debt, much of which is owed to China, and all of which must be repaid plus interest. Sure, you’ll hear noise about “the wealthy” and “Wall Street” being sent the bill but be skeptical.
College is indeed expensive, and needlessly so according to a plethora of experts. Like anything that is not truly a market, like medicine, there are few cost controls. Thus, prices are high. So many want/desire the product (college), and government, in some ways, makes matters worse by subsidizing it. The subsidies are intended to aid the poor, but they actually fuel price increases.
Note, in the past when government Pell grants have increased to aid those in paying tuitions, colleges have responded in kind by raising their “sticker prices” by the same or higher amounts. Thus, the poor don’t win, and taxpayers are left picking up the tab.
Consider housing, where most must borrow to buy. You might recall when banks practically threw money at people to buy and remodel homes in the mid-2000s. Prices shot through the roof. Then, a crisis hit. Banks reacted by making it almost impossible to get a loan from 2008-11. And when homebuyers couldn’t get or were limited with what they could obtain for a loan, sellers had to lower prices.
It would be an interesting experiment to cut off all loans and grants for a year to every student in America. It would be like using a sledgehammer to hang a picture on a wall, but the result of a year of pain for students nationwide would be lower prices. It would have to be. With so few customers (only the uber rich who don’t get aid), what else would colleges do?
The bottom line is this: be wary of any “free” talk from political candidates. There is no such thing. Just as when you hear, “buy 3 tires, get one free” and then “free college”, think the same thing—gimme a break!
Jeff Szymanski works in political communications for the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC), a senior benefits organization with nearly 2 million members.