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How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free (theatlantic.com)
42 points by danso 1296 days ago | hide | past | web | 43 comments | favorite

I gotta flag this, and it's not because I disagree with it.

Reading the title, the answer is obviously "zero". Government could by fiat decide that college education is anything it decides it to be. No money required at all.

But then the author comes up with this 62 billion number, which isn't the cost to make college tuition-free, it's the current private cost of tuition, which is a completely different animal. Hell, it might require an infinite amount of money to pay the tuition on everyone in the country for the next four years -- demand simply outstrips supply. So the article doesn't answer the question.

Finally, the author seems to think this is all just basic math, which I find odd after having screwed the pooch so badly thus far.

It's just a mess of a piece: linkbait headline, confusion of issues, poorly supported thesis, and rambling ending. I don't see it contributing to an interesting discussion on HN, and I wouldn't want to see HN full of articles like this.

Yeah, it seems to assume that current levels of attendance would remain the same if it were free, which doesn't sound like a very sound assumption.

Also, if it's 'free' that means that even in the case of someone from a very wealthy family pays the same as someone who really does need the help, coming from a poor background. That's kind of inefficient...

I like the idea of loans for anyone who wants them, which are payable from your future income, when and if you have it. I read they do that in Australia, and it seems sensible to me: it lets those without money attend, but ensures that they'll pay back what they consumed at some point if they find gainful employment because of their degree.

How could the gov't make it cost nothing by fiat? Professors will house themselves and eat how exactly?

With money the government prints for that purpose. Yes, I know. Some will claim that's a hidden tax, but then, some people will run around yelling "Keynes!" and claiming we come out ahead anyhow, so, shrug. Politicians will certainly claim this is a "free" education, so I'll just settle on that definition of "free" as good enough for this hypothetical thing that will never happen anyhow.

Exactly, higher education costs in the US are FREAKING RIDICULOUS.

When I attended the University of California at Berkeley in the fun 1960's, there was no tuition for in-state students. Zero. There were 27,000 students at that time just at that one campus.

It would be hard to quantify the return on investment to the taxpayers, but free quality higher education must have contributed to the thriving California economy and culture.

Of course, our costly rival Stanford has also contributed much, to Silicon Valley in particular. But we have twice as many Nobel laureates :)

In terms of my favorite unit for this kind of discussion, that's a mere .01 - .03 Iraq Wars[1]

[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/14/us-iraq-war-annive...

The BBC used a good unit during the 2012 US presidential election: F35 fighter jets. [1]

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20105913

[EDIT] 1 F35 being $212M means this proposal would be 295 F35s

Baloney - Lets do a quick BS Detection.

""" In fiscal year 2012, public 4- year institutions and administrative offices received 21 percent of their revenues from tuition and fees """

So What your saying is the government could foot the bill for ~20% of college education by doubling its education spending. Also this is assuming that you don't change the value equation of going to school by making it free. How much more demand would you have for those public schools if you made them free ? So lets play a quick mental game here. You make "public" schools free. That means the demand to get into those schools increases. That also means that demand at those private schools will decrease. Kids who would look at both a public and private instuition and might choose to spend marginally more on the private school will choose a public school that has an almost as good program if there is no cost associated with it. Kids who today are getting into public schools paying less and still getting a good education will be forced out by better preforming peers and will either pay _more_ to go to a private school or go without college at all. Good job you just made it so lower income students can't go to school at all. Congratulations.

Note: If your response to this is well the states would build more capacity remember that ~80% of public university funding already comes from the states so every extra student they make space for is money out of their coffers.

I think you underestimate how much rich people loathe being in the same place as the poor. You also have a bias that higher performers go to private schools....

The issue then would obviously become sustainability. You'd have to institute strict entrance exams similar to what Germany and many other European countries do.

Many flagship campuses of US public universities already have rigorous admission standards. I mean, you try getting into UC Berkeley and tell me how easy it is.

That would probably be a good thing, along with doing away with legacy admissions.

I agree, but only if there were good/reputable/affordable technical institutions for anyone who couldn't get into a top tier college.

That doesn't happen much with public/state schools in the first place.

Note that the Federal Reserve is buying $85 Billion each MONTH as a way to prop up the banks/financial system.

Which is bloody-stupid, since they could just be sending that money to citizens in a helicopter drop to help them pay for loans, rent, and pizza -- all of which stimulate the economy more directly than bank bailouts have proven to.

I'm still undecided on whether higher education should be free or not. There is an issue that needs to be dealt with (or solved) before we should considered making tuition free, though.

I see the sky high college tuitions as a side effect. The real problem we need to tackle first is how these institutions are structured and what they're spending their money on.

From what I learned of the university I attended, huge (HUGE) amounts of the budget go towards administration, and relatively smaller slices go to teachers and facilities.

Before we start subsidizing, or trimming degree programs and services, lets make sure we're re-aligning our higher education institutions around the original mission: education! Once we've gotten our schools back to providing the best possible education, and fostering good teaching faculty, then we can start talking about subsidizing the cost. Then we will know as a society, that we are truly paying to make our citizens more powerful in their pursuit of happiness.

As the state of our education system stands right now, I would not want to subsidize it.

I think you've got things backwards. College tuition has risen so rapidly because of the vast amount of subsidization from the federal government.

It has risen rapidly because the subsidies are college tuition loans instead of something less indirect and goofy.

I think you've missed my point. -- I'm saying before even beginning a conversation about subsidies (for or against, doesn't matter), we need to resolve the systemic structural problems of universities. Perhaps also move forward the debate of what constitutes a good education, so we have clearer targets to work towards.

I disagree with your point. If the subsidies go away, those structural problems quickly go away.

hah, your point is completely oversimplified.

A middle ground may be to subsidize only some fields. STEM requires more investment than the arts (laboratories, equipment, etc.) so is a better candidate for subsidies.

I agree the way things are set up now the for-profit sector cashes in big time. (Quite a succesful lobby, I suppose). But would the costs not rise if attending college became free? Wouldn't everyone want to get in?

Everyone wants to get in today already, and if they look low enough, they will get in. After all, student loans are readily available.

The issue is slightly different, the real task is to discourage those who won't finish their degree because they aren't cut out for it early on, so that the student and the university won't waste their time. When I got my degree back when in Europe they did just that. The attrition rate in the first year was high - 30 %, but whoever had passed the sieving exams usually came out at the other end with a degree.

Unfortunately one of the metrics US unis are judged by is retention rate. This will have to change.

Wouldn't everyone want to get in?

I'm having trouble thinking of a downside to this.

Good remark. I was thinking the costs would rise quickly.

Isn't there existing data based on highly-subsidized university attendance programs in e.g. the EU?

Just because everyone wants to get in doesn't mean everyone will get in.

> would the costs not rise if attending college became free?

It depends. Prices could go up as a result of cronyism and corruption. Or prices could go down if the deciders decide to cut it.

Or if education were democratically managed, resources could be allocated according to the population's preferences.

Who knows what would happen in real life?

I am disappointed by the shallow analysis of the article. It doesn't consider the monopsonistic effects that would result from 100% government-paid education.

Isn't public K-12 school paid by the government (i.e. taxes)? How would the effects be different, including the role of private schools, compared to the collegiate level?

If the government paid for all education, then education would be adapted to suit political / corporate desires (they are the customers in the transaction).

For example, the politicians who control Texas education ensure that all Texas textbooks are ``politically correct.'' Aka censorship. That's what happens when politicians control education.


The pedigree required to work at Starbucks goes up, indeed. Half of my friends with degrees do not have jobs in their respective fields.

Easy federal loans got them into an upside down situation from which they may never recover.

I got paid to go to a public university through scholarship, with money on top of free housing and tuition. I could have paid for college, or probably convinced someone to give me a loan given my career track.

There's way too many people who are destroying value by attending college right now, and the bubble will pop. 12 years to get an art history PHD and manage a gas station is not an efficient use of time or work energy.


I'd say I only know of 1 person I knew in high school who went to college and now works in the field they got their degree in. 1. (Except me!)

The rest of my friends do random stuff you don't need a degree for and earn very little money.

...plus cost of living for students...

Free post-secondary education is a reasonable idea for the advanced economies of today. However, if the public pays for post-secondary education, then the allocation of majors should be in the public interest. Graduating a surplus of English majors does nobody any good.

The advanced economies have a problem - there are simply not enough jobs to go around anywhere; if there were we would see longer workweeks, economic sectors with high number of vacancies, or even sectors with rising wages.

That said, it's easy to hate on humanities majors. But consider that at my second-tier state school, about 70 % of science majors are shooting for pre-med, not to prepare for a career in science. They know well enough that there are no jobs in science. A fair share of those people won't get into medical school, and medical education is a fine mess itself and likely the next bubble. It's not a good use of public funds.

In a post-labor economy, poets might be the only people left with a job.

This confuses costs. Tuition costs are only part of the cost of attending college...

I went to college years ago, and felt 80-90% of my classes were better than working, but not worth paying for--I only took them because the college required them for the degree.

If I had a kid I would make sure they were introduced to programming(including web developement) and the financial markets at an early age; We would also go to church. Yea--I think church matters. The world has enough Trumps and Zuckerburg's(yes--I think he stole the idea, but college taught me we all steal it's called Behaviorism, but I feel Mark went farther than subconsciously thinking he came up with a good idea. ). I think I flunked grammer though?

One more thing about school. I went to Chiropractic School and lasted a little over a year. With in a few months I realized I made a huge mistake(their are no Subluxations, well maybe a handful of real subluxations caused by accidents). I had one teacher tell the class, "there are over 17 different upper cervical techniques,--And they All work equally well". I was floored. It works on a placebo level. I went home had a break down, and dropped out. Paid back the 12 grand to the government. I has a break down for other reasons than the lie of Chiropractic School, but What always amassed me was the amout of denial among the students.

I couldn't figure out if they didn't know about the Placbo Effect, didn't want to admit they were duped, didn't care as long as it was legal, or they just wanted to be called Doctors?

I had one classmate die of a stroke while biking on a Sunday. He was a nice Midwestern kid. He was going to Chiro school along with his wife, but she was beyond cool. The ironic and sad part of his early death is I think he was seeing a Chiropractor weekly, and getting "adjusted" by a technique called a Rotary(snap your neck ligaments--Gases escape?), but patient believes bones are moving. This is what Sharon Stone was having done to her when she had an extremely rare bilateral stroke. I heared the only reason she is alive is because by luck, a visiting vascular surgon happen be in San Franciso on attending a conference? Some how the hospital got him to repair the vessels.

I was looking for some "truths" while I went to college, and all I took away from the experience was summed up too well in the movie Superstar, by Molly Shannon, "a bunch of cliff notes, and a lot of drinking". That was an extreme statement, and I think finishing a bachler's degree in anything is important, especially for low income families. Rich kids can fall back on their parents, or use their parents connections--usually.

I'll stop. I'm still confused, and just venting, and praying I have a few more healthy years.

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