As I’ve written before, the case for “free” college is decrepit, and Bernie Sanders’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post does nothing to bolster it. It sounds wonderful to say “everyone, go get a free education!” but of course it wouldn’t be free – taxpayers would have to foot the bill – and more importantly, it would spur even more wasteful over-consumption of higher ed than we have now.
Because I’ve rehearsed the broad argument against free college quite often, I’m not going to go over it again. But Sen. Sanders’ op-ed does furnish some “evidence” worth looking at: the notion that the post-World War II GI Bill was a huge economic catalyst. Writes Sanders:
After World War II, the GI Bill gave free education to more than 2 million veterans, many of whom would otherwise never have been able to go to college. This benefited them, and it was good for the economy and the country, too. In fact, scholars say that this investment was a major reason for the high productivity and economic growth our nation enjoyed during the postwar years.
I’ve seen this sort of argument before, as I’ve seen for government provision of education generally, and have always found it wanting, especially since we have good evidence that people will seek out the education they need in the absence of government provision, and will get it more efficiently. Since Sanders links to two sources that presumably support his GI Bill assertion, however, I figured I’d better give them a look.
Surprisingly, not only does neither illustrate that the GI Bill spurred economic growth, neither even contends it did. They say it spurred some college enrollment growth, and one says veterans ended up being better students than some high-profile college presidents expected them to be, but neither makes the Sanders’ growth claim. Indeed, in line with what we’ve seen broadly in education, one says that at least 80 percent of veterans who went to college on the Bill would likely have gone anyway, and in seemingly direct opposition to what Sanders would like to see, the other notes that the Bill disproportionately helped the well-to-do, not the working class. As the Stanley study says right in its abstract: “The impacts of both programs [the World War II and Korean War GI Bills] on college attainment were apparently concentrated among veterans from families in the upper half of the distribution of socioeconomic status.”
If we really want to do what’s best for the nation – not just what sounds or feels best – we need to ground our policies in reality. In education, as in Sanders’ op-ed, that often doesn’t happen.