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.
I mean, what with the banking crisis and all the issues in the Eurozone, how is any government going to cover the cost of their nation’s learning?
Well actually, Germany seems to be doing it pretty well; they recently scrapped fees for both national and international students; it's not simple, but it’s not impossible after all.
Today's demonstration, inspired by successes in other countries, was organised by The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, The Young Greens, and The Students Assembly Against Austerity. NUS president, Toni Pearce, controversially pulled her support earlier this month, saying the march posed an “unacceptable level of risk” to members.
Beth Redmond, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, explained why the march was necessary: “Education is a public good, it benefits everyone in society, and, therefore, I believe it should be paid for by those who are most able to. The state of your parent’s bank account should not hinder your access to education.”
Kirsty Haigh, NUS Scotland's Vice President Communities also commented: “We have come out because we firmly believe in free education; we believe it should be accessible to everyone at every level.
"We are lucky that in Scotland we have free education for undergraduate students, but we think that’s not good enough, we think it should be for all students, at every level, no matter if you’ve been through the system once or twice."
Personally, the atmosphere on the demo was – for the most part – fantastic; striding side by side with thousands of students, workers, and pensioners.
Placards jostled above heads, with statements such as ‘Free education, tax the rich’, ‘Books not bombs’, ‘Education is a right not a privilege’, and ‘This would never have happened at Hogwarts’ printed on them.
We chanted a variety of songs, such as ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’, ‘Biology and English lit, did not cause the deficit’ and ‘What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!’. You bet we want it now.
Ezra Schwalger-Jackson, from London Met, is paying just under £9,000 a year to study biomedical science. She told me at the march: “I can’t pay my rent and I can’t work because I’m studying full time – I’m stuck.
"I’m also here because of people like single mums and families from [disadvantaged backgrounds] who can’t afford education – there are so many intelligent people out there who simply cannot afford to be educated.”
Callum Cant, from the University of Warwick, brought over 200 students to the demo. He said: “I was the first year paying the new fees and I’m about to graduate with the full weight of £44,000 worth of debt. The enthusiasm among students for this cause is palpable.
“Students will come out in the streets if they think they can change something and today is about proving that they can. This isn’t just a demo; this is a movement which will grow from this point onwards.”
The march was going pretty peacefully until protesters tore down barriers at Parliament Square. Dancing and chanting broke out on the grass.
Even though the music created was amazing (I think someone actually fashioned a makeshift drum), it did mar the reputation of the protests; surely if we say we’re going to be peaceful, we should keep up our end of the deal?
As I left, watching as protesters began to huddle around a speaker on a platform, I asked Tom Hymas, a human sciences student at Oxford, how he thought the day went. He told me: “I think the march was a success; loads of people came down.
“I think we made the point we wanted to. Whether it will have any effect, we don’t know – but it’s a starting point from which we can take more action towards changing the government’s policy.”
Germany and Quebec successfully introduced free education after mass protests changed their governments’ attitudes. After the fees were tripled, we lost our faith and momentum. But, hopefully, today will be the start of students showing the people in Westminster we are willing to fight for what we believe in.
Eleanor Muffitt studied NCTJ journalism at Lambeth College