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Free college tuition could be expensive for Arizona taxpayers

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David Garcia, a Democratic challenger to Governor Doug Ducey in next year’s election, already has ideas on how to spend your money. And one of these proposals could get pricey.

Garcia took a page out of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign playbook—one she borrowed from her rival Senator Bernie Sanders—and is proposing free college for in-state Arizona students.

Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders proposed free college for all public university students in the U.S. and has since introduced a bill in the Senate to accomplish this. He didn’t duck when asked if this was fiscally responsible: “Now, some people say that this legislation is expensive, and they’re right. It is,” Sanders said.

Though Clinton initially balked at the proposal during the campaign, she embraced it after Sanders left the race. Yet free college had its critics in the Clinton camp. The Washington Post, which endorsed Clinton, agreed with Clinton’s original assessment that free college would be “an unfocused subsidy that would benefit many well-to-do families.”

The Post explained last year that state-school undergraduates—the very students Garcia’s plan would help in Arizona—are already the least indebted students. This means Garcia’s proposal could help students with low levels of college loan debt while driving up costs for taxpayers.

Arizona taxpayers should be concerned about this. “Free” isn’t really free in this case. Taxpayers will be paying for student tuition. Someone has to pay university expenses, which means Garcia’s plan must find a way to conceal additional taxpayer-funded subsidies and make public university finances less transparent.

Furthermore, research shows that additional public funding is partially responsible for increasing tuition costs. A 2016 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, finds that more public funding for college attendance helped explain a 102 percent increase in the cost of tuition from 1987 and 2010.

Remarkably, the Campaign for Free College commissioned a report that found: “While free college may be free to students, it certainly is not free to taxpayers, who may have to cover millions upon millions of dollars in foregone tuition revenues that now help support public institutions.” The report estimates Arizona’s lost revenue from tuition would be more than $1 billion.

These losses will need to be accounted for somewhere else in the state budget, a budget increasingly spoken for by increases in other areas. Health care spending in Arizona, for instance, has more than doubled in the last decade. Lawsuits have pushed legislators to increase taxpayer funding for K-12 schools, and anything but increases to this sector result in howls (and more lawsuits) from teacher unions and the Arizona School Boards Association. As recently as early May, school board lobbyists filed another lawsuit for more money for school buildings.

An additional problem with Garcia’s proposal as announced is that it only discusses tuition costs. In January, University of California Professor Robert Samuels, a proponent of free college and author of “Why Public Higher Education Should be Free,” criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo’s free college proposal for the state of New York because the plan ignored the additional costs of college fees. Samuels explains that the total cost of college can be three to four times the cost of tuition alone, once additional fees like textbooks and housing are considered. Estimates are similar in Arizona: Arizona State University estimates that tuition accounts for just one-third of the total cost of attendance.

Asking taxpayers to fund college will not make attending college any less expensive, and it certainly won’t make it “free.” Garcia’s plan does nothing to reduce tuition and fees. Samuels explains, “If you subsidize something but do not control its costs, it will not be able to achieve its policy goals.” Indeed.

— Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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