The Immorality of Free College

Over at Caracas Chronicles, they are having a very interesting debate about the needs of the university system in Venezuela. The whole debate began with a salvo from Juan Cristobal Nagel against the entire concept of universal free college education in response to university protests across Venezuela. The whole debate is well worth reading, but I would like to focus on JC’s posts. Overall, I agree with virtually everything he says, but I feel that he misses one critical argument: the opportunity costs within the education sector overall.

JC focuses on the opportunity costs of Venezuela’s oil spending. Specifically, that since Venezuela subsidizing both college and gas, and since there is only so much money to go around, money that could be spent on college goes to subsidizing gas and universities get the short shrift. This is certainly true in the Venezuelan case, but I think that in the broader debate about free tertiary education, especially in poor countries, it is most important to look at the opportunity costs within the education sector.

If you assume that there is a limited portion of GDP that any given non-rich country government can or will devote to education, then how you distribute those resources becomes extremely important. Essentially, every dollar you spend on primary education is a dollar not available for secondary or tertiary and vice versa. Obviously, even if primary and secondary-level education is sub-par in a given country, it is valuable to have publically-funded university since all countries need college graduates. However, in most of Latin America, tertiary education is free in spite of poor primary and secondary education. As a result, many of the kids attending universities for free were educated in private schools (since the public ones are so poor). The upshot of this is that beyond the basic regressive nature of free tertiary education (everyone is paying for rich people go to school), there is the further regressive component in that they are doing this at the expense of improving the quality of primary and secondary education for the poor.

In a region where there is limited social mobility and tremendous inequality, this is a process of calcifying inequality under the guise of purporting to reduce it.

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