Free College in America Is a Bad Idea. Just Look at Europe

Even fans of student debt relief will admit it doesn't solve the core problem of crushing higher education costs. For that, debt-forgiveness proponents such as Bernie Sanders and education economist Sue Dynarski have a long-term solution: free college.

They have a point. If we're going to burden the tax base to pay for the nation's college students through debt forgiveness, we might as well be more upfront about it. Just be prepared for the result. Free college will not only worsen the quality of American universities, currently the best in the world, and mean fewer resources for students, it would also be more regressive and would deepen inequality compared with a system where students pay or take out debt.

Free college, like universal health care, is one of those things that exist in Europe that Americans love to idealize. In Europe, most universities are public and France, Germany, Sweden and Scotland don’t charge fees to domestic students. But like just health care, nothing is ever really free. Free college is paid for with taxpayer money, which is always in short supply, and that often results in lower-quality services in the form of over-crowded classrooms and crumbling buildings. It's popular to make fun of the plush facilities on American college campuses, but a lot of the spending on students is valuable. More spending per student is one big reason why British and American universities dominate global rankings.