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Behind the concept of ‘free’ college

Progressive presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are keen on the idea of “free” higher education, and tell Americans to check out the systems of various European countries.

But as the American Enterprise Institute’s Jason Delisle and Preston Cooper show at National Review, there’s more to the concept of “free” than just raising taxes. For example, in Finland — which holds the top spot for government higher ed subsidies — only a third of applicants are even accepted to college, a percentage comparable to that of elite American universities.

Rounding out the top five “subsidies” countries are Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Austria.

The authors demonstrate in their report “International Higher Education Rankings” that despite their generous higher ed government assistance, Europe is eclipsed by the “Anglosphere and East Asian countries” in terms of (college) degree attainment and other resources (the latter essentially “a measure of spending per student relative to the nation’s economic capacity”).

From the NR piece:

While some countries prioritize a heavily subsidized higher-education system and others pursue a high college attainment rate, the evidence suggests that it’s almost impossible for a nation to do everything at once. No large country ranks in the top third of developed nations on all three measures. A nation inevitably has to pick and choose what its higher-education system should emphasize. Does it want free college at all costs? Or does it want higher degree attainment or better-resourced universities, even if that means that students have to pay some tuition?

The United States has chosen the latter path. America ranks eleventh out of 35 countries on degree attainment, and a striking third on our measure of the total resources available to colleges. (Some might argue that administrative bloat and unnecessary amenities on American campuses makes the U.S. ranking on this last measure not entirely desirable.) The United States achieves this high ranking precisely because its government does not insist on picking up every penny of the costs of higher education; we do not prohibit colleges from charging tuition. Students and their families share the burden, and so the higher-education system can do more than it could if it relied on public funding alone.

Read the article.

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