The Nation's Pulse

Free College

How much would tuition cost us if it were free?

By 10.20.11

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One of the few coherent demands of the Occupy Wall Street mob is free college education. Perhaps the college-age protesters do not realize we are just coming out of America's worst recession in 50 years. That wouldn't surprise me. Maybe they don't know the truly needy often do go to college for free, but those from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds -- most of the protesters, I'll wager -- are expected to contribute something to their education.

Most likely they expect the "greedy one percent" to pick up the tab. Hey, why not?

How to pay for college has been on my mind a lot lately. My son will be going away to college next fall. Besides the stirrings of empty-nest syndrome, there is the looming concern of how we will pay the exorbitant tab. Unwilling to subject him to the ineptness of the local public school system, we have paid dearly for a private high school education. And I fully expect to pay for a good deal of his college.

If he were an average student, deciding on a college would be a lot easier. He would attend the local community college, or the local state university and that would be that. But, unlike his dad, he has always been an over-achiever, and he would like to go to an over-achiever's school.

Like the protesters and -- I would assume -- everyone in America, I do agree that tuition is often, to borrow a former New York mayoral candidate's catchphrase, "too damn high." At least at the elite private schools. The University of Chicago, where my son has his heart set, has an annual sticker price of $41,091. His second choice, Vanderbilt, is upwards of $40,600. That's not counting the $13,000 for room and board.

Think about it. For the price of four years at Vanderbilt, we could easily purchase four houses on our block -- maybe more -- and set our son up in business as an enlightened slumlord. With guaranteed subsidy payments from the federal government, he'd be set for life.

But elite schools aren't the only games in town. When you read the gripes of the Occupy Wall Streeters, a familiar theme emerges: their crushing student loan debt. (Just this week, it was reported that Americans owe $1 trillion in unpaid student loans.) Some talk of being $95,000 in debt from their undergrad years. I'm not even sure how this is possible. The admissions counselors we've spoken to say you can only borrow $5,500 a year in federal loans. Are these students spending decades in college? And at what colleges?

Certainly there are affordable state universities. My alma mater, a nondescript Midwestern state school, costs less than my son's current Catholic high school. Tuition at another local state school, Southern Illinois University, costs a mere $4,432. But I suspect the Occupy Wall Street mob would turn up their collective noses at free tuition to SIU.

SO WHY IS elite college tuition so "damn high"? It may not surprise you to learn that it is a result of the federal government's involvement. The real cost of University of Chicago's tuition is probably half its sticker price. But UChicago can double its price tag because administrators know the federal government (read: taxpayer) will cough up the other half in scholarships, loans, grants, work study, etc.

I wonder if the protesters, who demand more government involvement, realize this -- that without government involvement, virtually all qualified candidates could afford college? And I wonder if the protesters know that in countries where tuition is "free" colleges are highly selective, that students have to pass rigorous admission exams, and that there are a lot fewer of them, compared to the U.S. with its 4,800 colleges and universities? Most of all, I wonder how much tuition will be when it's free?

One thing I would like to say to the protesters is, "You want free tuition to a top-tier school? Earn a full academic scholarship." Yes, that will take a lot of hard work. Instead of hanging out with your friends, smoking weed and banging drums, you'd have to crack open a book. But you just might learn something useful -- like economics and how, after high school, at least, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.