Joe Biden’s proposal to make public colleges free for families earning under $125,000 has received hardly any scrutiny. That’s surprising since it’s such a radical departure from the historical federal role in higher education in which the government subsidizes families with grants and tax credits. Up until this year, Biden himself believed in the successes of those programs. Today, he supports a different approach to promote college affordability: price controls.
Free college is, after all, a price cap of $0 for tuition at public universities. The problem with price controls is that they always result in less of whatever it is the government is trying to make affordable.
That’s been the case in other countries that have free college or mandate low tuition. Finland, for example, has free college, but most applicants to its free universities are rejected. There just aren’t enough seats. In Ireland, government price controls on tuition have helped starve the public higher education system of revenue. As a result, spending per student declines year after year. Some might call that efficiency, but the Irish argue it has diminished the quality of the education students receive.
Supporters of Biden’s free college plan surely don’t think that will happen in the U.S. But if universities can’t charge tuition, the only way policymakers can prevent such effects is to generously fund them and increase that funding year after year. That’s hardly reassuring when one considers that the main argument used by progressives for free college is that states and the federal government have underfunded public higher education for decades.