- Calling something free doesn’t make it free. Nothing in life is free. It’s simply a matter of who pays the costs.
- If a college education has value, why give it away?
- If college becomes free for students, colleges will attract more young people who are not suited for college and more students will major in fields with little or no market value.
Anyone watching the higher education landscape these days can’t help but note the proliferation of articles calling for free tuition. President Obama’s January 2015 proposal to make the first two years of community college free spawned much of this discussion. While the proposal stalled, it did help to ignite a nationwide discussion.
Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran “Nobody Should Have to Pay to Go to College,” by Kenneth W. Warren and Samir Sonti. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an opinion piece by Stephanie Saul that advocated free tuition at Harvard to help fuel diversity. Political candidates are also entering the discussion. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have offered proposals for free college and debt-free college respectively.
So what are we to make of these proposals? Advocates claim the United States is simply not educating enough students to maintain our economy and standard of living. These advocates claim college costs and crushing student debt are leading to a shortage of skilled, educated talent, jeopardizing our economic future and making us unable to compete in a global marketplace. We need to make it easier for students to access a college education – or so the argument goes.
If you’re a young person, a college student or the parent of a soon-to-be college student, free tuition might sound like a great idea. The prominence of these proposals certainly warrants a closer look.
For starters, we should examine the assumptions underlying this proposal. Some elements of the current discussion defy logic. If something is valuable, shouldn’t we be willing to pay for it? So how can we say it has value, yet seek to give it away?
And what about the notion the United States does not have enough educated and skilled people to fill all the positions of the new economy? Some workforce analysts assert that by 2020 two in three jobs will require some higher education to perform. The solution, we’re told, is to get more people into school and produce more college graduates.
That makes sense to some, but I’d ask: Is more higher education the only way to get an educated and skilled workforce? Of course, if you’re talking about some jobs, that may be the answer. However, we also have labor shortages in fields such as computing, the skilled trades, auto mechanics and health care. Many jobs in these fields pay well, but don’t require a four-year degree.
Is there a shortage or merely a maldistribution of students? The sad fact is that for every student in business, engineering or a pre-professional program, there are others in less marketable areas such as art history, psychology and history majors. That’s nothing against those fields or those who choose to study in them. But we need to ask: Will our nation be better if we keep generating graduates who have difficulty finding gainful employment?
Our society values a college degree – maybe too much. Over the last two decades, we’ve funneled too many young people toward a four-year degree, when the truth is that many probably would have done better elsewhere.
College, unfortunately, has become a proxy for talent. However, the reality is a college education doesn’t always translate into social or economic mobility. We tend to overlook the other paths to success, such as starting your own business or becoming an apprentice. We tend to overlook the thousands of individuals who through their own ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination achieved the American dream without ever going to college.
Moreover, newer statistics undercut the idea college is a sure pathway to a good-paying job and prosperity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for university grads are 2.5 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 2000. The research found that the real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages of recent college grads in 2015 was $17.94 or just over $37,000 a year. In 2000, the average hourly rate was $18.41.
A free tuition proposal would make more sense if there was a great demand for certain fields and college access was a significant problem. But it’s not. If you look at the data, the bigger problem is that many students don’t finish college. Only about 55 percent of students graduate six years after starting. The problem is not access but completion. Why do people drop out of college? For the most part, money is not the problem. It’s usually factors like family issues, or transportation.
The Obama program is targeted at community college students, a population where only 21 percent of students earn an associate’s degree within three years and only one in five earn an associate’s degree and go on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.
The upshot: Providing free tuition to institutions that graduate a little over 50 percent of their students does not make economic sense. It would likely attract more students that are ill-suited for the college environment who will end up dropping out anyway.
We will likely continue to argue about the value of a college degree. Even if we agree on all questions, any plan to make college tuition free faces significant practical challenges.
Again, let’s talk about the president’s proposal. The cost of the Obama proposal is approximately $6 billion a year – which seems a bit like a low-ball estimate, but that’s another discussion. Seventy-five percent of costs would be borne by the federal government; the states would pay the remainder, about $1.5 billion. You can be sure those costs would only grow. Where states would find the money is a good question.
With a budget deficit of $742 billion and $18 trillion in national debt, Americans should ask: Can we really afford to pay for another program that would in all likelihood quickly become another entitlement? Currently the United States provides billions in student need-based financial aid to eligible low- and middle-income students. The administration’s free college proposal would not only reduce the costs of education for many who already qualify for a free or lower-cost education, it would also provide free education for students whose families have the means to pay for part or all of a college education.
In part, working-class families will be forced to subsidize college degrees for rich kids.
There is more than one way to position America to be able to compete in a global economy. We must realize many of the problems we seek to redress in higher education are rooted in K-12 education. Substantive school reform and expanding school choice are two proven and less expensive efforts to address these concerns and improve the pool of quality graduates. States might improve this pool by rewarding programs that work. We could also incentivize corporations, such as CVS and UPS, that offer generous higher education benefits to employees of companies.
Unfortunately, the loudest voices in this conversation are advocates for free college tuition. That option can be accomplished in one of two ways. If private institutions, many of which have billion-dollar endowments, chose to provide a tuition-free education, it’s their prerogative to spend dollars as they see fit. However, if people want to provide a similar benefit at public universities, the federal government would be the only entity able to administer a free college program.
If we’re contemplating that thought, let’s remember two things. First, there is no mention of education or higher education in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the federal government from funding and exerting ever more control over K-12 and higher education.
Second, the expansion of federal control across all areas of society has fueled ever-rising costs and resulted in a loss of freedom for institutions and the individual. The track record of federal involvement in education is especially disappointing
Decades ago, the federal government’s interest in universities was limited to research. Then came the GI Bill, student aid and Title IX. The federal government‘s burgeoning role in research, student aid, diversity, health care and efforts to protect against discrimination has spawned an ever-growing bureaucracy of middle managers. These changes have added tremendously to the cost of higher education, reduced the ability of institutions to respond to changing conditions, and worked to homogenize colleges and universities that were once the envy of the world.
Let’s also remember that the one who pays the bill also calls the tune. Colleges and students lose freedom when the federal government intrudes into campus life.
Yes, free college tuition may sound like a dream to some. For most others, it’s a nightmare. Let’s remember, calling something free doesn’t make it free. Nothing in life is free. It’s simply a matter of who pays the costs. Free college tuition plans merely shift the costs of education from one group of taxpayers to all taxpayers. The proposals for free college are poorly targeted, too expensive, deliver too little and take away institutional and individual freedoms. It’s time to realize free college tuition is too expensive for North Carolina and our nation.
 The Class of 2015, Economic Policy Institute, available at: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-class-of-2015/#young-workers-are-not-%E2%80%9Criding-out%E2%80%9D-the-recession-by-%E2%80%9Csheltering-in-school
 Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort, published by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, November 2015, Available at: https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport10/
Filed Under: Articles, Education
Should College Be Free? Pros, Cons, and Alternatives
It's a question that might be more relevant today than ever before: Should college be free in America? Many people have very passionate opinions on the matter. Maybe you're one of them. But this question deserves a lot more than a simple yes or no answer. It deserves an open mind and a balanced exploration of the potential benefits, drawbacks, and alternatives.
After all, America's future is at stake. And nearly everyone agrees that education is one of the biggest factors that will determine the nation's fate going forward. So we have to get it right. Although some people might feel that the current system of higher education and vocational training is working well, many other people believe that it needs at least a little bit of improvement in one way or another.
College affordability is often among the top concerns. When the cost of attending college, university, or trade school is too high, a lot of students simply choose not to pursue a higher education. And that leaves many of them ill-equipped to find good employment, let alone attain the American dream. But high costs also leave some college graduates with levels of debt that hamper their abilities to attain at least a middle-class lifestyle.
So, should college be free? Is that even possible? Keep reading, and decide for yourself.
First, a Few Basic Facts
The concept of publicly funded education goes all the way back to America's Founding Fathers. In 1785, John Adams wrote: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it."
And, believe it or not, there actually was a time in the nation's history when people could attend public colleges for free. The Morrill Act of 1862 enabled land-grant colleges to be created by states on federal lands so that higher education could become available to Americans in every social class. The aim was "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."
In the early days, students could often attend public land-grant colleges without paying any tuition. That was possible because only a relatively small percentage of Americans actually attended college. But as enrollment grew over the years, so did the funding requirements in each state. And that led to public colleges eventually charging tuition and raising their fees as enrollment grew and state funding slowed.
Today, the cost of attending many public colleges is so high that a lot of students simply can't afford to. As a result, far fewer students from lower-income families attend college than those from upper-income families. That is in spite of the fact that the federal government continues to supply financial aid to eligible students, including Pell Grants (which don't have to be repaid).
Here are some other important facts to keep in mind as you explore the question of whether or not college should be free:
Why Should College Be Free for Everyone?
Proponents of free college believe that it would benefit the entire nation, not just the individual students who take advantage of it. They see it as both a private and public benefit. After all, more and more of today's jobs are knowledge-based or require advanced technical skills. So a better-educated workforce would help fill many of the skills gaps that prevent America's economy from growing faster.
Plus, since more people would be able to attain employer-desired credentials, more people would be able to take the good-paying jobs that often go unfilled. And that could result in billions of additional dollars circulating throughout the economy since people tend to spend more money when they have higher incomes and little or no debt. It could also mean that the government would take in a lot of extra tax revenues, which could go a long way toward paying for free public colleges.
But the issue of why college should be free isn't just an economic one. It's also a moral and philosophical one. Do we want every American, regardless of social standing, to have an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential? That's what this country is supposed to be about, yet social mobility has been eroding for the poor and middle class. And without easy and affordable access to quality higher education for everyone, the collective intelligence and goodwill of the nation could also erode. America might become even more socially divided.
Ultimately, many people believe that a college-level education should be an absolute right, so long as you have the ability to benefit from it. Here are some of the other commonly cited reasons why college should be free:
How Might the Government Pay for Free Public College?
Technically, free college isn't really free. Someone does have to pay for it. In the case of public college, that means taxpayers. But some economists believe that every American who wants to could go to college for free if the federal and state governments made a few reasonable changes. They don't see the concept as a fantasy. They see it as a very realistic option. Some of the ideas that they've put forward include:
Does Free College Work Well in Other Countries?
The answer appears to be yes. But that might depend on whom you ask. So where is college free in other parts of the world?
As of the 2015-2016 school year, the countries with tuition-free public higher education (at the bachelor's and master's degree levels) included Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, and Poland.5 Free college, in Europe especially, has proven to be a popular idea.
One reason why is that countries with free college education tend to have lower levels of student debt among their graduates. For example, in Finland, the average college student loan amounts to $1,200, which is used mostly for living expenses while in school. In Norway, the average student loan is worth $9,381. But that is still less than the U.S. average, which is $15,510.6
Plus, another compelling fact about free colleges in Europe is that those nations don't generally spend that much more on higher education than the U.S. does. For instance, as a share of national GDP, the U.S. spends about 1.36 percent on post-secondary education. But Finland, Norway, and Germany only spend 2.08 percent, 1.96 percent, and 1.35 percent of their nations' GDP, respectively.6
Closer to home, some people have asked, "Is college free in Canada?" The answer is no. However, college and university students in Canada do tend to pay less for their education than students in the U.S. since public post-secondary schools are heavily subsidized by the provincial, territorial, and federal governments. So the tuition is often lower. But many Canadian students still take out loans. In fact, the average student loan in Canada is worth $4,421, which is still far below the American average.6
Could Free Public College Work Well in America?
That's obviously up for debate. But many of the nation's leaders believe that it could. And you don't have to look any further than President Obama. Free college—more specifically, free community college—is something that he has proposed. Yet, so far at least, the idea has not gained enough traction at the federal level.
However, a few states—Minnesota, Oregon, and Tennessee—already have free community college programs. And several other states are considering legislation that would make two-year community colleges tuition-free for eligible students.7 So free public college might not be such a radical idea.
Plus, other programs around the country are demonstrating that providing people with free college can be very beneficial. For example, consider the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan, which has been in effect since 2006. Essentially, all students who have been continuously enrolled in the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) district since kindergarten—and successfully graduate from high school—are eligible to have 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered (at the undergraduate level) at any public college or university in Michigan that accepts them.
The Kalamazoo Promise also covers high school graduates who have been continuously enrolled in the KPS district for shorter amounts of time. In those cases, students can have 65 percent or more of their tuition and fees covered, depending on how long they've been enrolled. And students are given up to 10 years to use the scholarship after graduating from high school.
The impact has been positive. From 2006 to 2013, the percentage of KPS graduates who earned a college-level credential within six years of completing high school rose from roughly 36 percent to about 48 percent. And the impact has been the greatest on the district's low-income students who have increased their probability of attending and completing a four-year college education by over 50 percent.8
Why College Should Not Be Free for Everybody
Opponents of free college tend to believe that such an idea would simply be too expensive for the federal and state governments to maintain long-term. As a result, Americans may have to start paying much higher taxes. And that, they say, could hurt the economy since people might have less to spend or invest.
In addition, countries like the U.S., Canada, South Korea, and Japan have already proven that free higher education isn't necessary for building some of the world's most educated workforces. And free public college, by itself, would likely not be enough to promote the big improvements in social mobility that are needed throughout America. That's especially true when you consider the responsibilities of adult and non-traditional learners who often have challenges that aren't just strictly financial in nature.
Many opponents of free college are especially against the idea of making community colleges tuition-free. They point to national statistics indicating that public community colleges are often dead ends for students. For example, only about 20 percent of first-time, full-time students at public two-year colleges earn associate's degrees, diplomas, or certificates within three years of starting. And only 15 percent of them go on to earn bachelor's degrees within six years. (In contrast, 54 percent of students at private, non-profit two-year schools—and 63 percent of students at private, for-profit two-years schools—Graduate within three years.)3
So making community colleges free could have some negative consequences for non-traditional students who often benefit from attending private colleges or vocational schools. If the U.S. government diverts more funding toward making community colleges tuition-free, then students attending private schools could potentially lose access to federal financial aid since that might be one of the tradeoffs. They would then need to decide whether to attend free public schools that may be a lot more crowded or provide less effective (and less convenient) training.
Here are a few other reasons why some people oppose free college for everyone:
Are There Better Alternatives?
Maybe some kind of middle ground exists. Maybe making public colleges free for everyone isn't the best way to solve the affordability problem. At least, that's what some people believe. They point out that other options have been shown to work well and that those options might be a lot less expensive for American taxpayers.
For example, consider the possibility of an income-based repayment system. For some former college students in the U.S., that is already a reality. They are able to have the repayment of their student loans tied to a small percentage of their incomes. And if they earn below a certain threshold, then they don't have to make any payments. After 20 to 25 years, whatever is left on their loans is written off, as long as they have consistently kept up with all of the payments that were due. The problem, currently, is that this option is only available to low-income people who can prove that they are experiencing financial hardship.
But what if loans with income-based repayment were available to every student? You would be able to attend college, university, or trade school without having to pay for tuition while enrolled. Then, after you left school, you would only have to pay an affordable percentage of what you earned (or, if you didn't earn much, pay nothing at all until your income rose). The more money you earned, the quicker you would pay off the loan. And if your income stayed low, you would have the peace of mind of knowing that your loan obligations would eventually expire.
That's exactly the type of system that Australia uses through its Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). Plus, no interest is applied to the program's student loans. And for those earning incomes above a reasonable threshold, the repayment percentage ranges from only four to eight percent, which is very affordable. On average, it takes just over eight years for an Australian graduate to repay a HELP loan. Of course, many loans will never be fully repaid (roughly 17 percent of them). But the system has been designed to allow for that.6
With a system like HELP, college graduates have the freedom to take on lower-paying jobs while they get established. And it provides an incentive for aspiring artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and other visionaries to pursue an education and develop their talents without worrying about the costs. After all, the world needs such people. Our future would be bleak without them.
So an income-based repayment system represents a compromise. Certainly, taxpayers would still have to help fund it since not all loans would be repaid. But the tax requirements would likely be much lower compared to what a tuition-free system would require. And such a system would also put some of the onus back on students. It would remove important obstacles to higher education without removing accountability or a sense of ownership.
Other ideas and alternatives to free public college that have been put forward by various people include:
What's the Best Way Forward for Students Right Now?
Like other students, you might have a lot of options available to you. But the longer you wait to begin your post-secondary education, the more opportunities you may be missing out on. So even though "Should college be free?" is a question worth debating, the best action to take right now is probably to investigate the many helpful possibilities that already exist.
Why not check out some of the career-driven programs in your area just to see how you might benefit from them? Generate a list of nearby schools right now by putting your zip code into the following search tool!
1Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, website last visited on March 1, 2016.
2 Lumina Foundation, Redefining College Affordability: Securing America's Future with a Free Two Year College Option, website last visited on March 1, 2016.
3 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, website last visited on January 27, 2017.
4Inequality.org, website last visited on June 8, 2017.
5 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, website last visited on February 6, 2018.
6European Expert Network on Economics of Education, Student Debt in Selected Countries, website last visited on March 1, 2016.
7 National Conference of State Legislatures, "Free Community College," website last visited on March 4, 2016.
8 W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on College Enrollment, Persistence, and Completion, website last visited on March 4, 2016.