Behind the Left's 'Free College' Mantra

It's more than buying votes; it's sustaining fiscally unsound colleges and universities.

Thomas Gallatin · Feb. 22, 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) was the first to call for what has fast become an obligatory policy position for all current Democrat presidential contenders — “free” college. As with health care, Democrats’ call for free college is a play for the votes of recent college graduates who find themselves saddled with thousands in college debt. Much of that debt is due to the steep increase in tuition costs seen over the past three decades — an increase that has outpaced the rate of inflation. CNBC reports that the average annual tuition cost at a public four-year institution for the 1987-1988 school year was $3,190 (adjusted to reflect 2017 dollars) while the average for the 2017-2018 was $9,970, an increase of 129%. For private nonprofit four-year institutions, the numbers are even worse with an increase over the same time period of 213%. In other words, the increasing cost of college is not a myth, so it’s understandable that Democrats would add this to their litany of “free stuff.”

But there’s a bigger picture here than simply seeing this as Democrats blatantly seeking the college vote. Back in 2011, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen made the somewhat startling prediction that “50% of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.” And Christensen was not the only one to sound the alarm, as the U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service also projected that over the coming years the “closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.”

Thus far, the closure rates among four-year colleges and universities have ticked up slightly, but as Michael Horn writes in Forbes, “The total number of mergers and acquisitions from just 2010-2017 has doubled the activity that occurred in the prior decade, which further suggests that the Moody’s projections may be conservative.” Horn further points out that a combination of decreasing student enrollment, increasing online-program enrollment, and the fact that “at least 25% of private colleges now running deficits … and public colleges … expenses have outpaced revenue the past three years” is “a recipe for disaster.”

So, back to Democrats and their free college mantra. What Democrats are really after is the socializing of higher education. By doing so, they would prevent those fiscally untenable institutions from going under — via the taxpayer — while at the same time insuring that these enclaves of leftist ideology are enabled, without market constraints, to continue indoctrinating America’s youth.

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