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Destler Dodge

The average dinner table discussion on the cost of a college education wouldn’t be complete without Mom or Dad mentioning how little they paid to attend school. But while the recent rise in prices for college is pretty shocking, so is the rise in financial aid.

In a series from the popular podcast Freakonomics, titled “Freakonomics Goes to College,” host Steven Dubner points out that net tuition is rising at a very modest rate in comparison to the actual sticker price of college. Research by the College Board shows that net tuition in public institutions has only increased about $860 over the last decade. This is far from the educational armageddon that many journalists and politicians preach about.

Research from The Hamilton Project, a policy think tank, found the average "return on investment" of a college education was still hovering around 16 percent yearly in 2013, a rate that is well over double what an individual is likely to make by investing in stocks. David Autor, an economist from MIT, finds that not going to college will cost most individuals around half a million dollars over the course of their life.

If college were wrapped into a stock and sold, it would be impossible to find an investor who would pass on the deal. Meanwhile, thousands of college students around the country are completely oblivious to how good they've got it. Not only are the financial obstacles to college not as great as many people tend to believe, but the financial benefits of a college education are nothing short of thrilling.

Of course, just because something is worth a lot of money, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should cost a lot of money. Although many Americans would pay just about their entire paycheck for clean water, our government regulates the cost of utilities to ensure healthier communities and free up spending. The critical difference between clean water and a college education is that not everyone needs a college education. David Autor suggests that while the U.S. would benefit from more college-educated individuals, the country needs to first have high school students that are prepared to take advantage of the opportunity college presents. As of 2013, only 28 percent of 25–34 year olds in Germany held a bachelor's degree compared to 43 percent in the United States. The United States is already sending over 60 percent of high school graduates to university, despite the fact that many of these individuals are underprepared for college. The result is college dropouts, wasted time and wasted money for those that don’t make the most of their college investment.

While free tuition isn’t a fundamentally flawed policy — and while many countries provide it with great success — it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. Why push unprepared students into university? Why further advantage a population of college students that is already sitting pretty? Education initiatives should be starting from the ground up, not the top down.