The costs of going to college have risen dramatically in recent decades, so much that many are opting not to go to college while those who do are often saddled with student loan debt that follows them through life, sometimes even into retirement. In the wake of what many consider an educational crisis due to rising costs, there have been recent calls for a free college education. Should college be free? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Arguments for Why College Should Be Free
An Educated Population Is Necessary for Thoughtful Political Participation
To answer the question of should college be free or not, we have to consider its impact on the country as a whole. Democracies and republics demand an educated populace for full political participation. When people vote on issues and representatives, a college education can provide them with historical context, understanding of our system and understanding of underlying social and economic issues. College also often exposes people to ideas and people of different backgrounds that are beyond their backyard. This in itself is a strong argument for why college should be free.
Free College is a Natural Extension of Free Elementary School and High School
The idea of free college is really no more radical than free kindergarten through grade 12. At one time, few people went to high school and few elementary schools or high schools were free. There were some free “common” schools in the United States as early as the 1700s, but the concept of free education for elementary school-age children did not start to really gain traction until the mid-1800s, partly due to the efforts of Horace Mann, the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts. He also advocated compulsory schooling. By the 1880’s, there were many free high schools in the North. By 1900, only 34 states had compulsory schooling laws, but by 1918, all children in the United States were required to complete elementary school. By the 1940’s and 1950s, over of half young adults graduated from high school. Today, 88% of students graduate high school. Free education in this country has been a process of evolution. Free college is the next step.
Our Economy Now Requires a Better Educated Workforce
The world has changed remarkably since the 1940s and 1950s. Many more jobs today are knowledge-based or require advanced technical skills than in the past, to the extent that there are sometimes not enough qualified people to fill the positions. College education has become much more necessary than in the past to fill today’s roles. A better educated workforce would be a boon to American economic growth and at the same time increase tax revenues. In addition, if more people can get more good jobs, it would reduce other forms of public assistance.
Free College Would Jumpstart the Economy
The average student today graduates from college $37,172 in student loan debt. For graduate and professional students, the amount is significantly higher. People facing that kind of debt, often do not have a lot of money to contribute to the economy. Our total student loan debt in this country is $1.48 trillion, which is far more than credit card debt ($1.023 trillion). If people did not have such massive student loan debt, they could buy houses, buy consumer items and contribute more to the economy.
We are Wasting Some of Our Best Resources
High school students with the best grades, particularly when they come from low-income households, are not necessarily the ones who go to the best schools. Even though some might have been the most successful students in high school, they often see little choice but to go to lower-rated, more affordable colleges. That’s if they are able to go to college at all. We are wasting America’s brain power, brains that could be contributing to medical breakthroughs, economic advances, and leadership in all fields.
Current Student Aid is Inadequate, and Students Are Forced to Struggle for Tuition Money When They Should Be Studying
Students would be able to focus more on their studies rather than worrying about how to scrape together enough funds for each upcoming school term if college were free. More students might graduate on time, ready to take on important jobs in their communities. The cost of attending a four-year college has increased by 1,122% since 1978. In 1978, a student at a four-year, public university could earn enough in a minimum wage summer job to pay tuition. Those days are long gone. Today it would take more than a full year to make enough. Student aid is just not enough help. For example, today, a federal Pell Grant covers only about 30% of the average cost of going to a public four-year college or university. In 1973 it covered over 75% of the cost.
Free College Would Level the Playing Field
There is a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country. The median upper-income family (making over $127,600) now holds 75 times the wealth of the median low-income family (making under than $42,500), according to the Pew Research Center. In 1989, upper-income families held 28 times as much wealth.
The extreme increase in college costs means that fewer and fewer low-income students can attend college, and the wage gap grows larger. And those who do manage, graduate with crushing student loan debt. When people graduate with heavy student loan debt, it understandably decreases their probability of owning homes, getting married, having children and accumulating wealth.
Free College Is Not a New or Radical Concept
- John Adams, writing in 1785: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it.”
- Rutherford B. Hayes, Inaugural Address,1877: “But at the basis of all prosperity, for that as well as for every other part of the country, lies the improvement of the intellectual and moral condition of the people. Universal suffrage should rest upon universal education. To this end, liberal and permanent provision should be made for the support of free schools by the State governments, and, if need be, supplemented by legitimate aid from national authority.”
- Morill Act of 1862: 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. Initially, students could often attend tuition-free. Eventually, public colleges started charging tuition.
- The GI Bill: Following World War II, over two million veterans were able to get free college educations thanks to the GI Bill. Many of these people would never have been able to attend college otherwise. It changed their lives and our country because it helped the economy and increased the country’s talent pool. The GI Bill is often cited by scholars as a major reason for the high productivity and economic growth in the United States after the war.
Other Countries Have Successfully Implemented Free College Programs
Free college advocates frequently cite the success of other countries in arguing why college should be free. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Mexico, Germany and Finland are examples of countries that do not charge for tuition. Education is viewed as an investment in the future of the country rather than a give-away program. The percentage of the GDP that countries with free colleges spend on education is not much more than what the United States is spending with our current system. The United States spends about 1.36% of our GDP on post-secondary education. Finland spends 2.08%, Norway spends 1.96% and Germany spends 1.35%.
Arguments for Why College Should Not Be Free
College Is Never Really Free
Those who argue why college should not be free, make the case that free college is really not free. Instead of students paying for their own education, taxpayers pay for it. Those opposing free college worry about the ever-growing costs of going to college and increasing enrollments will make publicly funded college tuition unfeasible. Also, the amount the public and changing congressional representatives are willing to invest may fluctuate. This argument is backed by the fact that the cost of college tuition is increasing at a rate far surpassing inflation, and the more aid that’s available to students the higher tuition rates go.
Free College May Result in Waiting Lists
If college is free, more people are likely to go. This may result in the necessity of establishing waiting lists in order to handle the number of students, or current waiting lists may become longer.
Budget Issues Could Reduce Quality
If government funds become spread too thin, the quality of colleges may suffer. This could express itself in any number of ways including a decrease in available programs. If more students start enrolling in college because it is free, costs will escalate. Unless more money is allocated by the public, the quality of the education will suffer. This could end up decreasing access to higher education rather than increasing it, say those who argue why college should not be free.
Students Should Pay for College Because They Benefit the Most
Many people feel that even if there are societal benefits to a better educated population, the people that benefit the most are those who get the degree. Therefore, they should pay.
A Free College Program Should Not Be Free Across the Board
Should College Be Free? Free for who? For everyone? Many think college should be free for everyone, and other think college should be free to no one. Still, others say that college should be free to students from low-income households, but students from households that can afford to pay, should pay. Of course, then it would have to be decided what “afford” means.
If College Is Free, Students Will Take It for Granted
If college is free, there is a worry that some students will not study hard and make the most of their education. They might drop out before graduation or just put in the bare minimum, so they are not well-prepared to for jobs after graduation. The argument is that people appreciate something they must pay for and work for, but not something that is free. This could be easily resolved by simply setting up a rule that you have to maintain a certain grade point average to continue to go to college for free.
College Degrees Would Be Devalued if More People Had Them
This argument is that if many more people earn college degrees, the degrees will be considered less valuable. This could result in more underemployed workers who are not even able to make use of their educations. This argument for why college should not be free does not address how to fill the current unfilled openings for knowledge workers.
Do You Want College to Be Free?
If you feel strongly that college should be free, you may want to research the topic and get involved with political action designed to further that goal. And in the end, getting out and voting is critical to instigating change. It’s hard to understand any arguments against a better educated population. The real question comes down to how to finance free college, but that’s a question for another day.