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Your View by former college president: How 'free college’ would have unintended consequences

Many of the candidates seeking nomination for the presidency are advocating for “free college.” With 44.2 million Americans owing $1.5 trillion in student loans, and college costs continuing to increase, it is easy to see why some politicians think free college is a good election issue.Further, the rationale for free college is easy to understand. After all, we provide free K-12 education. Americans believe that if young people can read, write and better understand the democratic institutions upon which the country was founded, then they will be more effective in their future roles as employees, consumers, wage earners and active voting citizens.But a college education is different. It is the individual that mostly benefits from a college by way of increased income. According to The College Payoff, a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education, college graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn about $2.8 million on average over their lifetimes, 31% more than workers with an associate’s degree and 84% more than workers with a high school diploma. So asking a college student and their parents to pay for at least some of the cost of college seems fair. College costs should be considered an investment that has a significant return. Why should the taxpayer help underwrite an education that will deliver more money to an individual over their lifetime? Shouldn’t they invest in themselves?Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University (Contributed photo / The Morning Call/)What about those who argue that low-income students deserve a free college education so that they can more fully participate in the economy? A September 2016 report by the Manhattan Institute shows that many students in the lowest income bracket already receive enough federal and state grant aid to attend college for free in some states, California being chief among them. For a variety of reasons, free tuition does not necessarily generate an increased number of college graduates. Only 19% of Cal State students completed their four-year degree in six years. In other areas where free college tuition is available, such as New York City, graduation rates are also low.Free tuition will produce several unintended consequences. For instance, free tuition at public universities will inevitably swell enrollment in these state-owned institutions and spell the death of many private ones. According to the Brookings Institute, 30% of the 16 million U.S. college students in four-year college attend private, nonprofit schools. Free tuition at public institutions would force many of these colleges to close. Twenty private colleges closed since 2016 alone.These closures — coupled with the precipitous increase in enrollment at state-owned institutions providing “free” college — would make the overcrowding in college classrooms experienced by the impact of the GI bill in the l940s and the baby boom in the 1960s look like child’s play. And state expenditures for more classrooms at public universities will stretch already tight state budgets.The irony of the free college movement is that it is rationalized by its advocates as a way of addressing the inequalities in America. It would give low-income individuals a better opportunity to be successful, and by so doing narrow the income distribution gap.However, when college becomes free, overcrowded classrooms, caused by the demise of private nonprofit colleges, will exacerbate the already significant poor graduation rate for low-income students. Students from families with higher income would then flock to the few remaining private colleges, or apply to public ones and rely on parents or other subsidies to carry them through the 6 to 10 years it will take to complete a college degree. The result will be, according to Sandy Blum, a higher education economist, that students from families earning $120,000 or more will be the most likely to benefit from free college.Finally, if current college debt of $1.5 trillion is forgiven, as some potential candidates propose, those who have graduated, and are already realizing higher incomes, will reap the benefits of debt forgiveness. They will receive a windfall at the expense of all taxpayers, many of whom never graduated from college.There really is no such thing as a free lunch, and this applies to a college education as well.Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University, Dallas, Luzerne County. He also a trustee of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Foundation.
Source: Morningcall

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