A 2020 campaign promise of virtually all Democratic aspirants to the presidency was that at least two years of college will be provided free to all non-superrich Americans wanting it. In a reflection of the often seemingly eccentric nature of American national politics, the probability that the likely 46th president, Joe Biden, can deliver on that promise will very likely be determined by a small percentage of American voters in two special U.S. Senate elections in the state of Georgia on January 5. I predict hundreds of millions will be spent on these elections, but if the Democrats win both seats (not likely based on last week’s results, but certainly highly plausible), a Kamala Harris tie-breaking vote should give Democrats control of the Senate, allowing them to deliver on campaign promises.

However the Biden Administration faces a huge problem: money. Contrary to what some of their economic gurus implicitly assume with their economic theorizing, governments face resource limitations, and multi-trillion-dollar budget deficits cannot persist forever—ask the Greeks or Italians (or, in the New World, Argentina or Venezuela) about the consequences of overly aggressive deficit spending or printing money. Italy’s economic growth in the 21st century is essentially zero.

However, a think tank at Georgetown University, the Center for Education and the Work Force, led by veteran researcher Anthony Carnevale, now says: don’t worry, in the long run the Biden free college proposal will pay for itself. The real costs incurred for a few years will be recouped from increased education and skills of Americans. Specifically, their Dollars and Sense of Free College report finds that “the benefits of Biden’s free college plan would exceed the annual costs of the program within a decade.”

The authors argue that higher education not only raises income for participants, but also “contributes to positive outcomes such as improved health, reduced crime, and a greater sense of well-being.” Speaking of the Biden proposal specifically, first year costs are estimated at $49.6 billion (about one-third absorbed by state governments). But higher earnings of new degree holders combined with other social benefits (e.g., improved health), will yield benefits within a decade exceeding costs.

The study makes implicit but possibly unfounded assumptions about incremental students graduating from college with at least an associate level (two-year) degree. For example, a huge percentage of those entering community colleges do notgraduate. More importantly, it makes the totally unwarranted assumption that earnings differentials of degree holders are attributable mainly or solely to their postsecondary education. Some economists, perhaps most prominently recently economist Bryan Caplan (The Case Against Education), argue that a majority of the earnings differential associated with degrees is not attributable to anything learned in college.

A more fundamental problem with free college proposals never gets discussed. Someone has to pay for college, and if the federal government simply writes checks to colleges for tuition, the schools will raise fees ferociously—that is the experience with other student financial aid programs. To counteract that, the Feds might effectively put in a system of national price controls which the schools would try to evade by special fees. Perhaps the greatest strength of the American higher education system is its diversity coming from 50 state governments controlling public schools along with hundreds of competing private higher education providers. This would further diminish this system, turning more control over to a Washington, D.C. bureaucracy that cannot even deliver the mail as well as private package deliverers.

Even before the pandemic struck there seemed to be a flight to quality in higher education—to private schools and the best state universities, with two-year schools losing enrollment. The advantages of a college education increasingly have been questioned, given the high risks of not getting the credential in the expected time, and with a large percentage of degree-holders “underemployed”. Paying people money to go to college to get a job working as a grocery clerk or home health aide, jobs that could have been obtained with just a high school diploma, makes little sense. “Free college” may be mainly simply a payback to the higher education community that supported the Democratic victory, far more than it is a principled attempt to promote economic growth and greater opportunity for less educated Americans.