College Guide


March 11, 2013 2:40 PM Could We Get Free College at Last?

By Daniel Luzer

Well, maybe. Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic writes that, surprisingly enough, it is possible for the federal government to provide free higher education to every student now enrolled in a public university, without spending any more money. As he explains:

Here’s a little known fact: With what the federal government spent on its various and sundry student aid initiatives last year, it could have covered the tuition bill of every student at every public college in the country. Doing so might have required cutting off financial aid at Yale, Amherst, the University of Phoenix, and every other private university. But at this point, that might be a trade worth considering.
Let’s start with a quick survey of the numbers. Between graduate students and undergrads at both four-year and community colleges, students paid just under $60 billion in tuition to attend state institutions of higher learning in fiscal year 2012.

So far so good. But as he points out, we’ve actually got that $60 billion, and then some:

That’s our threshold: About $60 billion. Now how much does Washington spend on aid? According to the New America Foundation, Washington appropriated some $77 billion worth of it in 2012 via a giant salad of tax breaks and grants…. The money we’d need for this grand experiment is already there.

Technically, yes. Could we use that money more effectively? As he puts it,

With the money that’s either going to private colleges, or or being paid to the public sector in a roundabout way via tax breaks, we could probably make tuition at public institutions — which educate about 76 percent of American undergrads — either free, or ridiculously cheap. The question then becomes whether that’s a vision of higher education finance that we would want to embrace, and if it is, whether it would be a feasible policy.

Well, no, not really. The problem is that while it’s true on a balance sheet we could perhaps move this money around so as to provide free public college to all. But we can’t do that in the real world (Weissmann acknowledges this). That’s because that $77 billion is being spent on things.

Some of it is no doubt being wasted. Some of it is padding the balance sheets of for-profit schools. Some of it goes to supplant high tuition at private universities with large enough endowments to fund the aid on their own.

But that doesn’t really matter. Any attempt to move all federal aid directly into state universities would result in a vast and angry outrage (and lobbying efforts) from America’s private universities (not to mention for-profit companies that offer higher education).

“You’re cutting off aid to poor students,” they’d complain. And they’d be right. The reality is that while Princeton or Amherst could continue to exist fairly well without federal financial aid, University of Phoenix would go bankrupt. Also destroyed under this plan would be a huge swath of small private colleges that educate many middle and working class Americans.

And that’s why it will never happen.

But the specific point that Weissmann is making here is very important, and it’s one that might be very useful for education reformers, particularly advocates of public higher education, to make: affordable state colleges are possible. There’s no natural reason for public colleges and universities to be so expensive. We’ve devoted public resources to a complicated federal financial aid system that funds many, many institutions and fails to keep college affordable. We may not have done this on purpose, but this is what we’ve done.

Any reform ideas should start from this reality. How much money are we spending, and what is it buying?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • linda on March 16, 2013 11:51 AM:

    The University of Phoenix SHOULD go bankrupt. For profit colleges are on the rise all over the country, big and small; they exist to get loan dollars and they do a VERY bad job. They are like pay-day loan companies, or like for-profit prisons that also work against the general good. But they make money, and so they are a growth industry taking away from higher education.

    The point on small privates is right, but keep the for-profits in a different column.

  • Sean on March 16, 2013 12:20 PM:

    Linda nailed it. I don't see how driving a lot of these shady for-profit online colleges out of business would be a bad thing. They prey on ill-informed students, provide very little in the way of actual education, and continue to dilute the value of a bachelor's degree.

  • raincntry on March 16, 2013 1:52 PM:

    They key would be restricting federal financial aid from being used at for-profit institutions. There are private, non-profit institutions that are legitimate schools, like Georgetown, or Middlebury, or the like. It's the for-profit diploma mills, like Phoenix University, that needs to be corralled from the public trough.

  • Frank on March 16, 2013 3:25 PM:

    I have a better idea. Private universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard, do excellent work in the sciences, but their undergraduate schools are filled with entitle, over-privileged, students who form an only marginally competent ruling class in business and government. They're too eager to make money to learn anything beyond a MBA. Let's abolish affirmative action for the rich and ban ALL federal funds from private universities that have a legacy admissions policy. Shutdown the billion dollar a year scientific research budget at Princeton and let the grad students and the big name professors go elsewhere until middle class students have the same opportunity to graduate from elite universities as stupid rich kids do.

  • Katherine on March 16, 2013 6:57 PM:

    As a middle class student who graduated from MIT, with tuition largely paid for by financial aid, it's pretty clear to me that Frank doesn't know what he's talking about.

    A better question might be to ask why smart middle class and poor kids don't apply to elite schools, even though those schools in many cases offer more generous financial aid packages.

  • Eric on March 16, 2013 8:12 PM:

    I don't understand your rebuttal. If "You're cutting off aid to poor students," is going to be the argument from opponents of Weissmann's proposal, then the correct response is -- if we take Weissmann's argument as true -- "No, poor students will finally be able to go to college and graduate sans the ridiculous debt they're saddled with by private and public schools."