NPR: Free College For All: Dream, Promise Or Fantasy?

“Free” is a word with a powerful appeal. And right now it’s being tossed around a lot, followed by another word: “college.”

A new nonprofit, Redeeming America’s Promise, announced this week that it will seek federal support to make public colleges tuition-free. That effort is inspired by “Hope” and “Promise” programs like the one in Kalamazoo, Mich., which pays up to 100 percent of college tuition at state colleges and universities for graduates of the city’s public high schools.

In reality there’s no free college, just as there’s no free lunch. The real policy discussion is about how to best distribute the burden of paying for it — between individual families and the public at large — and, secondly, how to hold down the cost of providing it. All while leveraging the power of “free” responsibly.

For many conservatives, the answer is simple. An education makes individuals richer, and individuals should bear the cost. “The state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,” said Ronald Reagan, back when he was running for governor of California. In recent times, the conservative position is perhaps best expressed by economist Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

In his books, articles and public appearances, Vedder argues that federal student aid is creating a bubble that allows colleges to raise prices indefinitely, and the only way to stop the cycle is to cut off public funding.

Kevin Carey, now the director of the higher education policy program at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, made pretty much the same argument in the New Republic in 2012. He compared public universities to apple vendors:

You, the apple vendor, look at the situation and say, “Hey, the market price of an apple is still $1. Wouldn’t it be great if I could charge $1 for apples, but still get 40 cents from the government for every apple I sell?” … So you start raising prices by 3, 4, or 5 percent above inflation annually.

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