Over at popecenter.org, George Leef reviews the book, Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, by Robert Samuels, president of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers. Leef gives the author credit for some of his views, but rejects Samuels’ recommendation that college  should be “free.” What’s wrong with that idea? Leef offers his view.

It would destroy much of private higher education. Private colleges and universities that rely on tuition would lose a lot of their students. Why pay $25,000 and up if you can go to a public college or university for free? The nation has many small private schools, often providing the kind of education that Samuels favors (at least the small classes taught by real professors), but their enrollments would shrivel if public colleges were free.

It would exacerbate the problem of students going to college who ought to pursue some other path after high school. As it is, we have a large number of academically weak and disengaged students who go to college, but some decide against it on the grounds that the cost is too high for the questionable benefits. Take away the cost deterrent, and we would have more of those students. Samuels declares that he wants more people to graduate from college, but obviously doesn’t realize that college is a poor choice for kids who aren’t prepared for or interested in academic work.

The cost estimate is low. Samuels forgets the new influx of students from private colleges and those who otherwise would have not have gone.

It would mean less effort by a substantial percentage of students. If neither they nor their parents are paying anything for them to attend, many students will treat college like an extended vacation. (Many already do that, but undoubtedly more would if it were free.) People tend to take better care of things they have paid for and that includes education, as economist Aysegul Sahin argued in this paper. 

It would do little or nothing to change the incentives facing public college leaders. Even if federal bureaucrats are wagging their fingers at them, they’ll still want to keep the alumni happy with sports, to keep the faculty happy with low teaching loads and no supervision, and they’ll still want to keep the students happy with costly amenities and the sort of low-expectation courses they desire.