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Articles / Preparing for College / "Free" College? TANSTAAFL!

July 26, 2016

"Free" College? TANSTAAFL!

We’re in the midst of a highly heated political campaign. Running for President of the United States is serious business. Looking back over campaigns of the past, we can easily see that what was being said on the campaign trail and what actually transpired once a candidate was elected president can be two completely different things.

During the current race, while candidates battled for party nomination, two Democrats shared one particularly alluring promise: free college for everyone. That’s a dramatically sweeping proposal, to say the least.

The title of my post here includes the the famous acronym TANSTAAFL (pronounced “TAN-stoffle.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s the scoop:

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (alternatively, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” or other variants) is a popular adage communicating the idea that it is impossible to get something for nothing. The acronyms TANSTAAFLTINSTAAFL, and TNSTAAFL, are also used. Uses of the phrase dating back to the 1930s and 1940s have been found, but the phrase’s first appearance is unknown. The “free lunch” in the saying refers to the nineteenth-century practice in American bars of offering a “free lunch” in order to entice drinking customers.

The phrase and the acronym are central to Robert Heinlein’s 1966 science-fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which helped popularize it. The free-market economist Milton Friedman also popularized the phrase by using it as the title of a 1975 book, and it is used in economics literature to describe opportunity cost. Campbell McConnell writes that the idea is “at the core of economics”. …


Being as curious as I am about the ideal of free college for everyone, I posted on the College Confidential discussion forum a thread with a link to an article about free college, entitled Making college ‘free’ will only make it worseThe thesis of the article states:

“… The hard truth, alas, is that higher education cannot possibly be free. In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble — but no politician’s promise or electoral mandate will ever make the costs of providing a college education vanish. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. That has always been the first pillar of economic wisdom.” …

I was shocked to see the level of response to this thread. As I write this, I see 302 comments from forum participants. Boston Globe article author, Jeff Jacoby, begins, in full:

Like Santa Claus and time travel, “free” college tuition sounds great in theory but doesn’t actually exist in real life. For much of the past year, Bernie Sanders’ promise to make public higher education free for all attracted multitudes of enthusiastic supporters to his presidential campaign. Last week, Hillary Clinton embraced most of the Sanders proposal, paving the way for him to endorse her formally on Tuesday and, she hopes, to convince voters who #FeltTheBern in the primaries to back her in November.

Under Clinton’s new plan, in-state tuition at public colleges and universities would be abolished for students from families with incomes up to $125,000. The campaign estimates that that would make higher education tuition-free for more than 80 percent of American families.

If only …

Of course, the political orientation of this article put the flame to the ever-hovering combustible vapors of CC forum members and I was accused of violating the CC forum’s rule of not posting anything political. However, one balanced and reasonable forum moderator came to my rescue:

People are reporting this as “political”. Every topic that has anything to do with the law is political in theory and, more often than not on big issues, in practice. Politicians make the laws. Clearly if there is going to be free tuition, say for community colleges to start like Tennessee has IIRC, it is going to happen because Congress votes for it and the President OKs it. The trick is to discuss the feasibility and/or the desirability of such a development without getting into either particular politicians or liberal/conservative generalities. That is when the thread will devolve into broad-based nonsense. – FC

Thank you, sir. Your tolerance has allowed for a very lively discussion.

Accordingly, let’s take a look at a few of the more stimulating forum comments:

– Best quotes in this article:

“A promise of ‘free’ tuition is merely a promise to stick someone else with the tab.”

“…making any good or service free encourages people to waste it. No product was ever valued more highly by being given away for nothing.”


“If college becomes ‘free,’ even more people can attend college without bothering to become educated and without acquiring any economically meaningful skills.”

– I wonder how much worse off USA is because free K-12 education, free public roads, and such.

It must be Economics 101 that anything free ruins it for everyone …

– Those “free” libraries are ruining our country.

– As with every “can’t be done” article, this one assumes that free college has to come from the same expensive bloated mess of a system that the current model comes from. That’s just untrue.

– I think, at the very least, we need to make community college and trade/vocational school free for all high school graduates.

– Maybe we should address ways to make college more affordable instead of just throwing money at the problem. Not that common sense is expected from our elected officials, but it would be a nice thing if it happened.  

– <<Margaret Thatcher once said, “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.”<< Yup!

– Many countries offer high quality free or cheap university tuition to its citizens. But those countries don’t give it to everyone. They limit it to the students who are streamed early on in secondary school. Doing the same in the US will not be socially acceptable.

– The issue here is who will pay for the “free” education. Cooper Union was free until the investment it was founded upon could no longer support the model. The free education at the service academies is funded by taxpayers to the tune of $250K-$400K per cadet/mid. Education has costs. If we agree that more of it should be “free,” we just have to figure out how to pay for that portion we don’t want to charge the student. Taxes anyone? Other suggestions?  

The Globe article inspired some comments too:

– “No product was ever valued more highly by being given away for nothing.” Although this is not the definition of it, open source software is a major counter example. Roughly speaking, nearly every piece of software that enables you to read this on the Internet was developed without compensation, and was obtained by downloading it for free.

– Some of his points are well taken. But Jacoby, like most republicans, offers no solutions, proposals or middle ground on this issue, only criticism. Any thoughts on how to stem the soaring costs or higher education to make it more affordable to most Americans? Or is college education available only to those who can afford it?

– New buildings, at least at the University of New Hampshire, come from endowments, gifts, etc. They are paid for separately from operating costs. Up until the early 1980s, one could get an education at the University of California for less than one thousand dollars per year in “student fees,” assuming one qualified to get in based on academic merit. Of course, living costs were on top of this… no matter how little tuition one might pay, college is still far from a free ride. But there was a halcyon time when the state considered it advantageous to have an educated populace. Republicans seem to have ignored this. Perhaps it’s because they know that an educated populace would see through their selfishness, greed and lies. “A liberal thinks the glass is half-full; a conservative thinks the glass is his.”


– I often wonder why we get into these bogus “free” arguments. Of course nothing is free. No sane person thinks when the pol says “cost free” college and community colleges that it is simply “free”. Why they don’t simply make the argument they mean is often simply because it goes beyond a “bumper sticker”. The argument of course is we need a highly educated workforce and enough folks can’t afford it and others who go deeply in debt get so far in debt that they add very little to the economy when they finish school …

– The notion that everyone should have a free education is ridiculous. Make college free and a degree will be worthless. The freshman year will simply become Grade 13 and the idea of college as institutes of higher education will be over.

And so on …


I can assure you that once this particular presidential race is over and a new face takes the oath January 20, the issue of free college for everyone will quickly recede into the night. Perhaps we should give birth to a newacronym: TANSTAFC (TAN-staff). “There ain’t no such thing as free college.”

Amen to that.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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