Free College Education Is Not Free

Politicians make promises. Of course, a lot of voters are also quite cynical. There are, however, promises that are obviously difficult to keep. There are also promises that may be attractive at first, but after a thoughtful analysis, may actually end up hurting society. One example is free tuition in state colleges. We in fact have heard this from Bernie Sanders in the US. In the Philippines, there is a bill currently filed in the Senate for free college in state universities and colleges (SUCs). Appealing this proposal maybe, free college education is not free.

Above copied from the Senate of the Philippines Facebook page
Such bill is actually as bad as the DepEd K+12 law passed in 2013. One glaring similarity between the two is the lack of consideration for what is necessary to implement the law. Another is its complete neglect of unintended consequences. And lastly, although both claim to help the poor, these measures will make matters worse. 

Free college education is not free. Similar to basic education, it requires input or resources, which are funded either through taxes or foreign loans. The teaching resources required for higher education are also different from those necessary for elementary and high school education. Teaching in a college or university requires scholarship, after all, higher education means exploring the frontiers of human knowledge. Higher education also differs from basic education because the former values the experience more than the degree it provides. A higher education institution is a community of teachers and scholars. The inputs necessary to support a college or university are therefore vastly different from that of basic education. The highly skilled workforce required to keep an institution of higher education running amounts to substantial costs. There are a few countries in the world that do offer college free of tuition. Ironically, these are also the same countries that have lower percentages of their population with a college degree. Both France and Germany, countries that have free colleges, have lower college-educated adults than the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Canada, countries that do not have free colleges. 

And as in any advertisements that we hear on the radio, there are details at the end that actually warrant more our attention. In Germany, for instance, tracking begins early in basic education such that enrollment in colleges becomes very selective. This, of course, becomes a necessary evil because of the plain fact that no country can really afford to give college education to everyone. In the case of the Philippines, the country cannot even provide for the senior high school years. Therefore, selection is necessary. Interestingly, the tracking introduced in DepEd's K to 12 is already in place. Free college education only hurts the poor as much needed resources for basic education are going to be stretched even further. And, of course, schools that serve primarily poor children are the first to suffer. If poor students cannot even finish high school, offering free college is really an empty promise meant to get popular votes but no fruitful action.

The bill in front of the Philippines Senate claims to help poor students who want to finish college. Poor students are already failing in basic education. It is then very highly unlikely for these students to even apply for college admissions. There are indeed some poor students who are able to beat the odds. It is more prudent then to ensure that these students receive full scholarships and living allowances than to offer free college education to all. 

Unintended consequences are also present. Governments are often incapable of raising the quality of education. There is ample evidence out there. Quality in higher education is sure to suffer when it does not have the funding necessary for its operations. Private institutions of higher learning are going to be forced to close as their student enrollments plummet. Will the government then resort to handing vouchers for those who wish to enter a private college?

The Philippines must focus its limited resources in tackling the problems of basic education first. The biggest problem in higher education in the Philippines is quality not accessibility. Quality must be addressed first. Doing otherwise only creates two monstrous disasters.