This month I turned in grades for my summer classes. The moment that task was completed, I officially wrapped up 25 years in America’s system of higher education.
During that quarter-century, I have observed countless proposals from Washington, D.C., to the hallways of my institution to make college education more “accessible” for millions of struggling American families. The latest idea – straight out of the Bernie Sanders-created Democratic platform – has Hillary Clinton proposing “free” college tuition for a large swath of America’s middle- and lower-income families.
This idea is loaded with several unintended consequences that will make the recipients of this federal gift regret the moment it passed.
Here is the list:
First, her plan would create an artificial increase in the demand for college classes at community colleges and public universities. Community colleges, which are open-enrollment institutions, would be inundated with students seeking seats. This would lead to massive shortages, unless states approve huge budget (and tax) increases to fully fund the expansion of buildings and hiring of new faculty.
Universities, facing a similar demand push, would raise the price of admission, meaning higher grade-point averages, SAT and ACT scores would be used to weed out students who have responded to the allure of free tuition. This greater selectivity would put even more pressure on public universities, which already are facing challenges in having a racially and culturally diverse student population.
Second, potentially millions of young people who have no business attending college would waste their time – and taxpayer dollars – seeking degrees they will not obtain. It is a simple fact that not everyone is capable of surviving the demands of multitudinous college majors. The concept of free tuition would dupe young people into a sense of belonging, only to find that their work ethic, intelligence and aptitude are not up to the rigors of advanced education.
This brings us to another economic fact: Ill-prepared students who rush off to college could have allocated their time and resources to second-best choices such as internships, vocational training or other certification programs to become skilled workers in fields that are already in critically short supply – and often pay more than college graduates earn. Clinton’s plan only exacerbates those shortages in blue-collar trades by decreasing the available supply of candidates for those programs.
Her program also would lead to downward compression on salaries for students who do obtain college degrees. Simply put, if you have an artificial increase in college and university enrollments, you will have an artificial increase in the number of people who eventually receive degrees. Ask yourself what will happen if, say, the supply of humanities or English majors increases? Of course, salaries will have to fall as surpluses emerge in those professions.
Then there is the problem facing college educators who would now teach millions of educational welfare recipients. We already see a growing trend toward millennial entitlement thinking. If President Clinton gives these folks free tuition, many of them are going to treat college like they do public high school. Does anyone really want America’s colleges and universities to be regarded the same way we regard our high schools?
Free K-12 education is of the same quality as many other free goods – poor, at best. Paying for college makes people value their education more.
Finally, there is the small matter of the United States Constitution. In 1794, James Madison said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress, of extending on objects of benevolence the money of their constituents.”
Since Clinton would have to swear to defend the Constitution, I would like to send her my pocket copy, which provides no measure for taking away taxpayer dollars to pay for the education of college kids. Simply put, our Founders recognized that in order to make tuition free for one person, an act of plunder had to be committed on a taxpayer.
Which leaves me with my recommendation to parents of college-age kids:
Pay for your own creation.
Jack Chambless is an economics professor at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., and a senior fellow with the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. He wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel.