Should college be free?
With each election year — whether it is the major one or the midterm election — the issue of higher education and its increasing cost comes up.
Students are graduating with more debt than at any other time in history — at least $30,000 in student loans, in fact. And that is just to get a bachelor’s degree.
If you plan on getting a graduate degree, you can add even more money to that amount.
Should young people who have just graduated college and are starting out in life be already saddled with $30,000 and sometimes upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt when they haven’t even had a chance to enter the workforce yet?
There are valid arguments on both sides of the aisle when it comes to free college education. We raise some of those arguments on each side here and then we’ll talk about how it could in fact become a possibility in the United States.
Ready? Let’s delve right into it.
The Arguments on Whether or Not College Should Be Free
Free college education will be unfair because people from richer families will have an unfair advantage.
We see where this argument comes from. Although the USA is one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world, there are still huge disparities in income levels across different demographic groups across the United States.
And so while a free college education would benefit someone in a lower income class (potentially helping that person to move their family out of that income class), a college freshman from a rich family getting the same benefit does not seem fair.
The counterargument to this then has been that only students from families in the lower income class would qualify for the benefit.
For instance, in the state of New York, first-time college students could qualify for free tuition at a state college if their family earned less than $110,000 the previous year.
While this might be great for students who meet this cutoff, a family who made $110,000 last year may also be saddled with their own living expenses, or may have a major life event happen that drains their income. Cutting off students whose families made over $110,000 would therefore seem unfair.
Our take is that no matter how you slice it, free college tuition based on income level alone is going to be unfair. However, we do see how free college education would be helpful for students who come from very poor families.
The lack of free education hasn’t impeded efforts in the US to create an innovative workforce.
Another argument that people bring up is that the lack of free college education has not prevented the US from becoming one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.
After all, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates hardly finished college and they became sensations.
While this is true, the fact is that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are outliers when it comes to this particular argument. They both came from well-off families and had opportunities in their younger years that most children never get.
While the mainstream media portrays their success as accidental, it hardly is.
However, if even in the absence of free college education we have managed to be this innovative as a country, free college education could open up even more of these opportunities for intelligent students who want to go to college but cannot afford it.
Free college education will become too expensive for the state and federal governments to support in the long-term. Americans will have to pay higher taxes as a result.
Having to pay higher taxes is fun for nobody. And so this is an argument that hits close to home for all of us.
In fact, in most countries where college is free, this seems to be the case.
So what’s the middle ground here?
One way some of those countries have worked around this is to require college graduates who benefit from a state-funded program to serve the state or country for at least two years so they can “pay back” the country for their free education.
Of course, this workforce will contribute to the economy and also pay taxes — some of which can be used for the next generation of college students.
Students who fail to work in the state for the stipulated amount of time will have to pay the state or federal government back.
Students will still have to borrow some money for their living expenses so it will not be completely free anyway.
In Canada, while college is not free, they pay significantly lower tuition and fees to attend college.
Some students still have to borrow money for college and graduate with an average debt of $10,000 at the bachelor’s level — a third of what US college graduates owe on average.
So even if students will in fact borrow some money, adopting a form of free education policy will significantly reduce the amount US students have to borrow.
Younger generations will not be money-savvy if they are given free college education.
This argument is hollow. Why? Because people can be taught to be money-savvy without incurring large amounts of crippling debt.
To begin with, most of our schools — starting with elementary school — hardly have programs that teach children how to manage their finances.
If we have these programs in place that teach the youth to be responsible with their money and they are taught that free college education, while a right, is also a great privilege, more younger people will be money-savvy.
There would be a decline in the number of people who enroll at private universities.
If free college education is instituted, it is likely that the benefit will not extend to private universities.
Thus the argument here is that students and families would choose the free option over the expensive option.
The fact of the matter is that there is always a section of the population of any culture that wants to have exclusive experiences and options.
Think about it for a moment:
- Toyota cars are great and yet people choose to buy Tesla vehicles.
- There are people who would rather buy a pair of Louboutin shoes worth $1,000 than get the comfortable yet cheaper pair from Walmart.
- People go to Starbucks to buy the same coffee they could have bought at the shop closer to their home for a third the price as the Starbucks coffee.
The point is, despite the cheaper options, Tesla, Louboutin, and Starbucks remain profitable brands because they have chosen to cater to the needs of people who want exclusive experiences.
So while there might be a decline in private college enrollment, private colleges can coexist successfully with free public colleges.
How to Make Free College Happen
We already raised some of the ways we could make free college happen in the United States in the points above.
Here’s a summary:
- Make it apply primarily to state-funded, public universities.
- Preference should be given to students who are residents of the state.
- Students that benefit from free college education should be required to:
- Work in their home state for at least two years after graduation or else they will have to pay it back to the state/federal government.
- Be enrolled in school full-time the entire time they are receiving the benefit.
- Graduate within four to five years.
- If income levels are going to be used to determine who gets free college education, students from severely lower-income families — for example, those that made less than $50,000 the previous year — should be considered first.
It is possible to have free public college education in the United States. States like New York and Tennessee have implemented versions of free college education.
It will not be perfect in the beginning and it will need refining — like anything else.
However, if it is implemented it will have many positive implications for our country.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Should college be free?
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.