Here's an analysis of the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project, a wide-ranging and thorough look at the way the government spends on education. It shows that the total take from American universities in tuition for undergraduate programs is $62.6B, while the Federal government is spending $69 billion on grants, aid loans, tax breaks and other funding.
The implication is that it would be cheaper to give away university education than to charge for it, but that's not quite right (federal education funding pays for more than tuition -- it also includes housing, food and other expenses, and the feds are already subsidizing colleges out of their $69B spend). But it does suggest that the education system is really screwed up, an expensive boondoggle that is optimized for paying bondholders who own student debt, rather than turning out an educated, resilient and adaptable nation.
Of course, we're not going to start from scratch (and I'm not even sure we should want to make state schools totally free). But I like to make this point every so often because I think it underscores what a confused mess higher education finance is in this country. On the whole, Americans seem to want affordable colleges that are accessible to all. But rather than simply using our resources to maintain a cheap public system (and remember, public schools educate 75 percent of undergrads), we spill them into a fairly wasteful and expensive private sector. At one point, a Senate investigation found that the for-profit sector alone was chowing down on 25 percent of all federal aid dollars.
If that story sounds awfully similar the problems the U.S. faces with healthcare costs, well, that's because it is similar. Americans have an allergy to straightforward policy solutions involving the public sector. And for that, we pay a price.
Here's Exactly How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free [Jordan Weissmann/Atlantic]