When Free May Not Be A Good Idea

One of the stranger truths of marketing is that sometimes, the way to sell more of something is to increase the price, especially if there are competing products.

Assume you have plenty of money in the bank when you go to the store. You see a display of oranges. You really like sweet citrus fruit.

In one bin are oranges marked at 50 cents each. In another are some for 60 cents each. You put the expensive ones in your cart. They’re more expensive, so they must be better.

Not necessarily. But consciously or subconsciously, you’ve paid more because cheaper products, whatever they are, aren’t supposed to be as good.

And if they’re free — well, they can’t be very good. Hardly worth the effort of putting in your cart.

That, really, is what Belmont College President Paul Gasparro was talking about last week in a presentation to the Wheeling Rotary Club.

Gasparro was talking about proposals to make college “free” for everyone.

First off, let’s recognize politicians who make such proposals aren’t being honest. What they’re talking about is not charging college tuition — which is far from meaning a free degree. For students who leave home to pursue higher education, room and board expenses dwarf those of tuition.

But for students such as many of those at Gasparro’s school, tuition-free education can be attractive. If you can live and eat at home, perhaps courtesy of mom and dad, killing the tuition bill leaves only books and a little gasoline to buy.

Gasparro has concerns about that. Obviously, from his standpoint — and that of every college president — tuition covered by state or federal government is a wonderful idea. It encourages more people to go to college and stay there longer. That means more money — lots of it — for higher education.

We’ve already seen the phenomenon with federally guaranteed student loans. Young people run up enormous bills at colleges and universities then, once they’re out (with or without degrees), they complain about repaying the loans.

One wonders why the erstwhile students are shocked. Weren’t they paying attention while they were running up the total?

Give Gasparro a big round of applause for worrying more about young students than about building a higher education empire. Here’s what he told the Rotarians: “It would be very nice if any education is less, or even free. But if something is totally free, you have no stake in the game — no ‘skin in the game,’ as they say. …”

What he meant was that students, told they will be paying much less for college — or even getting it at almost no cost to themselves — are less likely to take their higher educations seriously. They’re more likely to attend college on a whim, to pursue unrealistic majors, to stay within the ivy-covered halls longer. They’re less likely to work hard toward worthwhile degrees.

“Free” college may not be a good thing for some students, in other words.

Gasparro is right. Good for him for saying what he did — for putting young people’s well-being ahead of that of college professors and administrators.

And by the way, he has another great idea: Instead of taxpayers subsidizing colleges to make them cheaper for students, why not do that by cutting spending at the colleges — and making them more affordable?

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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