COMMENTARY: Why Forcing Taxpayers to Cover Tuition Will Make College Worse for Everyone but the Rich

COMMENTARY: Why Forcing Taxpayers to Cover Tuition Will Make College Worse for Everyone but the Rich

Whether you are in college, hope to go to college, or planning for your children’s education, the cost of university tuition in America is on many people’s minds. Since the end of the Second World War, more and more people have enrolled in college, more colleges have expanded or been created, and the price has gone ever upwards, far outpacing ordinary inflation. For all that time, people have looked to the government to solve the problem.

In the latest version of the tuition-payer’s lament, Amanda Ripley writes in the Atlantic of how “Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country.” Different countries have different customs, but a variation that severe is enough for anyone to stop and take notice. Ripley lays out the problem and its history, and even takes tentative steps beyond the standard progressive answer of demanding more government funding.

Unfortunately, she concludes only by taking the next step on the well-trod path of leftist economics, demanding that if the market players refuse to accept the incentives the government has laid out for them, then they must be made to accept them. “Ultimately,” she writes, “college is expensive in the U.S. for the same reason MRIs are expensive: There is no central mechanism to control price increases.”

This Works So Well in Health Care

The shift from government nudges to government fiat is a tale as old as government itself, but the result is also predictable. Price-fixing has never worked. In consumer goods, it inevitably leads to black markets. In education, it will just encourage the trend already evident in secondary education: separating the rich from everyone else.

Consider how high schools work. For most people, there is only one option: the public, taxpayer-financed high school run by school districts. Making education into a public good is an extreme form of price-fixing that has its benefits—namely, that no American is deprived of a high school education on account of price.

The only cost of admission is to live in the district. That has its own price constraints, since some school districts have little or no affordable housing, but is generally a levelling trend. Many on the left say we should apply this to post-secondary education: make it “free” to all.

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