Free education is elitist13 Dec 2006
Is free education more elitist than requiring tuition fees? This piece from Free Exchange is worth a long quote.
Until recently, only a small minority in most Western European nations received any post secondary education, even though tuition was low or free in most places. Ironically, the ideal of free education forced the government to institute rationing through non-price mechanisms, in this case by limiting the number of spaces at university. Wealthier children were more likely to get the high exam scores necessary to secure one of these scarce slots.
Recently, these countries have tried to make higher education more widely available. Unfortunately, they have tried to do so on the cheap. This has put a tremendous strain on the resources of these universities, and as a result many talented professors have decamped to America. But the mere mention of instituting or increasing fees incites mass demonstrations of students, who believe the only fair education is free education.
However, fee paying education does not seem to discourage attendance. According the National Centre for Public Policy and Higher Education, 39% of Americans between the ages of 35 to 64 hold a college degree, just behind Canada. This figure is only 25% in the UK, 23% in Germany, 19% in France, and 10% in Italy. They are shrinking towards par in the current generation, but there is no sign that free education is making Europeans more likely to attend college.
Speaking from experience, as a student money for education is a solvable problem... loans, part-time jobs, scholarships, or even joining the military. There are ways around it. But there is no way around not getting a spot in the first place because universities are underfunded.
The trend in Germany right now is to start charging modest fees to students without actually increasing budgets, the quality of education or the number of students. In other words, it's the worst of both worlds.