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Free College Has a Price, as the UK Has Proven

Listen up, Bernie Sanders.

Your suggestion of free public college could be disastrous for the very people you want to help.

Just look across the pond to the UK. It didn't work so well there.

For decades, all students there were entitled to a free first degree. For a time, they were also given a stipend for living expenses while they studied. Indeed, I had the benefit of this taxpayer-funded handout for college, at a time when few people opted to attend.

It sounds great, just like an idyllic society.

But then something changed, and things got even better.

In 1998, the government decided to tack on a fee to attend college. It was much like the U.S. system, although the monetary cost was initially far lower. At first, it was around $1,300 a year at today's exchange rates, although that has increased to approximately $12,000 (or 9,000 British pounds.) A significant difference with the U.S. system is that repaying the cost is income-dependent -- below a certain annual level of earnings, no repayment is required.

So what happened after the change?

Many more people went to college than had gone in the past, at least they did in England.

“England’s shift has resulted in increased funding per head, rising enrollments, and a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students,” states recently published research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In other words, there was more access to higher education in England after fees got introduced.

The trend has continued. Over the 10 years through 2015/2016, almost half (49 percent) of those aged 30 and under were participating in higher education versus just 42 percent in 2006/2007, according to UK government data.

”These increases in enrollment have not mainly benefited high income students,” states The End of Free College in England: Implications for Quality, Enrollments, and Equity by Richard Murphy, Judith Scott-Clayton and Gillian Wyness, who are from the University of Texas at Austin, Columbia University and University College London, respectively. “In fact, participation rates among the lowest income groups have increased most rapidly since fees were introduced, and the result is that the participation gap between rich and poor students has at least stabilized, or even slightly declined.”

In short, introducing fees did more to help poorer students than did having free education.

Why is this so?

“Free leads to rationing if the government pays,” says John Howson, a visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. “Either you have a lottery for who gets a place, or as it is education you choose by grades.”

He’s right. It works like this.

Lest anyone forget, the government doesn’t have an unlimited source of cash. Any responsible legislature, or parliament, will allocate a fixed amount of money per year to spend on its citizenry.