“Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction. The former exists even in Germany, the second in Switzerland and in the United States in the case of elementary schools. If in some states of the latter country higher education institutions are also ‘free’, that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts.” — Karl Marx, in his notes to the Gotha Program, 1875 (source).
A century later, George Psacharopoulos wrote: “free education is likely to have the opposite effect to the one advocated by politicians, namely that it might further aggravate rather than alleviate social disparities. The main reason for this perversity is that although education (say, at the university level) is free of charge to those who eventually enroll, enrolments have to be rationed by non-price means (like competitive examinations) because the number of university places is limited (especially in less advanced countries). The non-price allocative mechanism is inequitable because it favors students from well-to-do families who can afford the substantial direct cost of private preparation for the university entrance examinations and the indirect cost of
foregone earnings while the student is at school. Furthermore, the absence of tuition charges increases the ratio of aspirants to entrants and thus boosts the gap between the demand and nearly fixed supply of university places. This creates the need for further non-price restrictions to entry, increases the number of unemployed secondary school graduates and inevitably contributes to social unrest” (Psach Subsidization Ed 1977).