Should college be free?
It’s an oft-asked question with a complicated and arguably unclear answer. With rising college costs and the student debt incurred the question is only being brought up more often. So why should college be free? Well, there is evidence that it could help to close the inequality gap, encourage learning, and work to develop a better workforce.
Of course, there are two sides to this debate, and there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument. Below, we broke down the possible benefits and the downsides to try to get to the answer of “Should college be free?”
Why Should College Be Free?
There are several upsides to making college free within the United States. It could bring a number of benefits to up-and-coming generations and students looking to return to college after a break. We’ve outlined six arguments below.
1. Student Debt Will No Longer Crush the Younger Generations
If an American college student is able to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt, they are considered lucky (the current average is around $37,700).
However, students from other countries that already offer free college don’t have much student loan debt, if any. Most of their costs are living expenses, books, and materials.
Without the weight of student loan debt, more college graduates could have the opportunity to buy houses and cars sooner rather than later. More money also makes it easier to afford healthier food options and additional vacations. And, of course, with less debt generally comes less stress. With 73% of people in the United States saying finances are the number one stress in their lives, the lack of student debt just as they’re entering the workforce could be a game changer for younger generations.
2. Free College Could Help Lessen the Current Inequality Gap
There are plenty of students who would love to go to college but simply can’t due to the excessive cost of attendance. And some even have to drop out because they do not have the ability to pay for tuition for all four years. In fact, over 50% of students drop out of public universities because they can’t afford it! 79% also delay their graduation because they have to switch to part-time or return at a later date due to costs.
While there are grants and scholarship programs to help make college more affordable for these students, it sometimes isn’t enough and there’s only so much money to go around. Making college free could help eliminate this reason for not graduating. This could improve college graduation rates, as fewer students would feel the need to drop to part-time status or take a break from education for financial reasons.
Other considerations include:
- There are income gaps between potential average earnings for college graduates and those with only a high school diploma.
- Those without college degrees are more likely to divorce, become single parents, have serious health concerns, and face addiction.
- College education has been shown to decrease crime.
- College education has been shown to increase community participation.
3. More Freedom and Less Stress
When entering college, many students are concerned about the earning potential of their major. This can result in students feeling pressured to take specific majors even if they’re not interested in them. Additional pressure can come from parents, family members, and society as a whole. There’s also the concern about having a lucrative job after graduation so you can pay back that debt. This results in students opting for “practical” majors that are much more geared towards income rather than their passions and interests.
Another reason why college should be free comes down to burnout and stress. Burnout can occur when a student is taking courses that they’re simply not interested in. Financial concerns can also add stress. If a student is constantly worried about affording their next semester’s tuition or working a job to afford their bills, they’re not focusing enough on their classwork. By allowing them to study what they want and taking the financial stress out of the equation, burnout is less likely to occur, resulting in higher grade potential and rising graduation rates.
4. More People Could Go to College
By negating the large cost of a college education, we could see an increase in the number of students able to attend college. Students who previously hadn’t thought about attending college due to the cost may not be interested in attending.
5. There Could Be a Stronger Workforce
College offers more than courses related to the student’s major and a chance to enter a specific career field. College education teaches several skills that can be difficult to master elsewhere. A range of available courses during the four years of college can teach students problem-solving, critical thinking, cooperation, communication, conflict resolution, networking, and more. These skills translate directly to the workplace which can elevate productivity and efficiency and improve company culture and overall performance.
6. It Could Help Drive Economic Growth
Another argument to “why should college be free” is the fact that there is potential to drive economic growth. With students graduating with little to no debt, they would have more money from their income to put back into the economy. And thanks to the skills colleges teach, employees can take those skills and help build up entire companies and industries.
Why Should College Not Be Free?
There is another side to the “why should college be free” question. There are potential downsides that need to be considered, including these four.
1. The Money Has to Come From Somewhere
If America were to move to a tuition-free college policy, where would the money come from? The short and simple answer is likely in the form of increased taxes. So who would be paying for those? It could impact the upper middle class as well as those in higher income brackets, or it might come from Wall Street speculation taxes.
If college was free, it has to come from somewhere and the uncertainty of who will pay is not making all Americans comfortable.
2. College Might Not Be Taken Seriously
A tuition-free college experience may result in some students not taking it seriously. Some students directly state that the realization of how much they or their family is paying drives them to perform well in college and actually attend their classes. If college was free, students might be more likely to skip classes, change their major, and study less.
There’s also the concern that students would be more likely to take a course “here and there” rather than working towards degree requirements. This could take up valuable seats for students working towards a major or degree.
3. College Education and Experience Could Decrease in Quality
Another argument against “why should college be free” is the idea that quality could dip. With potentially less money going into colleges and universities, schools may find it more difficult to offer top-quality education opportunities for their students. Faculty and staff salaries could decrease, equipment may not be purchased or replaced in a timely manner, and the campus may not receive the upkeep it needs.
When students pay for their classes, they’re not only paying for their seat. These payments also go towards salaries, library books, housing repairs, campus resources, campus upkeep, and more.
4. More People Would Go to College
Of course, this was listed under the benefits of “why should college be free,” but it could also be considered a downside. It could be argued that college being free could actually decrease the value of a college degree.
Since everyone can afford one, it may become more commonplace and could lower salaries for those who already have a bachelor’s and those who graduate. It could also lead to individuals working in spaces they’re overqualified for due to over-saturation or require those in certain fields to now get a master’s where it wasn’t a requirement before.
And colleges only have so much space. With more and more applications to schools, more students could be wait-listed and it could become more difficult to get into even less competitive colleges.
What Are the Other Conversations Around Free College?
There are other discussions being had surrounding free college as well. These aren’t pros and cons necessarily, but rather questions that are part of the overall conversation.
If College Was Free, What About Private Institutions?
One concern is that if college is made free, we could see the decline of private schools. Since private schools rely on tuition and donations for a good portion of their funding (and their current endowment programs), they could find it difficult to compete with public colleges on a financial level. Would they have to close as a result, which in turn could lead to fewer seats for the influx of students, fewer job opportunities for professors, and the loss of research programs and projects?
What About Community College?
Another point is the fact that not all college needs to be free – what about just free community college? And, in fact, many states already do offer free community college programs to their students. While many of these programs are dedicated to students within a certain income bracket, it is opening the conversation more surrounding free community college for all.
Don’t Other Countries Offer Free College?
A point that is regularly brought up in favor of free college is the fact that many other countries manage to do it – why can’t we? Germany, Spain, Austria, Finland, Czech Republic, and France all offer free college to their students. In fact, Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, and France offer free education to all students, even those who aren’t residents.
These changes did not happen overnight, however, and the models took time to implement. Germany’s free tuition for public colleges, for instance, went under a tug of war for decades and only became a tuition-free country in 2014. And even today, there are arguments against it. Although there is a budget from Germany’s Ministry of Education that helps fund this program, schools argue that the funding isn’t enough and they have to make up the gap in financing.
So…should college be free? There’s a lot to consider, and it will likely be debated for years to come. Free tuition could definitely deliver plenty of improvements to society and open the doors to new opportunities for students, but there are challenges that would have to be solved before it could become a reality.
At the moment, while there are programs to help make college more affordable for students, college is not free in the United States. This means students need plans to help them cover the cost of tuition. One route that could help you graduate with less debt? Scholarships. And finding scholarships doesn’t have to be difficult! College Raptor’s own Scholarship Search Tool helps you locate the awards you qualify for quickly. Use it for free right here.
Please note that the arguments made in this article are not the opinions of College Raptor®. Rather these arguments are meant to be a conversation showing the different considerations and arguments one could make.