Should College Be Free?

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Should College Be Free?

March 1, 2021

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When Senator Bernie Sanders promoted his plan for free college back in 2016, his European-style vision of higher education met with skepticism. Where would the money come from? Would students benefit equitably? And would all of college's costs, including room and board, books, and fees, really go away?

Since then, free college has become a major policy point for Democrats, with many progressive presidential candidates adopting it in 2020. During his own presidential campaign, President Joe Biden put forward a plan for free college that would make community college free for all and four-year college free for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year.

Most free-college plans rely on states matching federal contributions to make up 100% of tuition costs for in-state students. Covering college's steep tuition rates would require new taxes, which Sanders proposes be levied on Wall Street. Biden's free-college proposal did not include how much the plan would cost or how he would pay for it.

Table of Contents

The Debate Over the Free-College Model 3 Reasons Why College Should Be Free 3 Reasons Why College Should Not Be Free The Future of Free College in the U.S.

The Debate Over the Free-College Model

Critics of free college argue that the cost to taxpayers outweighs the benefits it would provide low-income students. Many low-income students are already eligible for free college through full-ride Pell Grants. Economists Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner call free college "neither logical nor sustainable," pointing out that middle-class students would benefit most from the trillion-dollar legislation.

Biden could leave the question of free four-year college, like the question of student debt cancellation, up to Congress. First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, promises that free community college is still on the docket. "We have to get this done. And we have to do it now," Jill Biden said in a statement.

While COVID-19 disrupts higher education, the economic downturn is poised to worsen the college affordability crisis and widen the opportunity gap between low- and high-income students. In response, the most progressive policymakers demand widespread debt forgiveness and free college for all.

Biden has signaled support for $10,000 in debt cancellation and free community college, but recently announced he does not intend to cancel up to $50,000 per student. So far, the administration has only extended the moratorium on federal student debt payments.

3 Reasons Why College Should Be Free

College Creates Better Futures

College is the de facto means of social mobility in the U.S., propelling graduates into solid, middle-class jobs. Higher degrees can unlock an extra million dollars in lifetime earnings. But in order for college to live up to its potential as a great equalizer, all individuals must be able to access higher education.

Bachelor's degrees have replaced high school diplomas as the basic qualification for most jobs. Yet while K-12 education remains free in the U.S., postsecondary education comes at a steep price. Most students take out loans, and around 10% wind up defaulting.

Existing financial aid, scholarships, and student debt forgiveness programs, such as those that forgive the remaining debt of teachers and other civil servants after a certain number of years, have failed to help millions of students afford their degrees. Student borrowers who drop out of college are in the worst position of all, bogged down by debt but without a degree to accelerate their ability to pay it off.

Education Boosts the Economy

Critics of free-college plans say that a lack of free education hasn't impeded American progress; rather, access to free college might have spurred it on.

Almost half of all U.S. states already offer programs that provide tuition-free college to select students.

The GI Bill® connected more than 2 million veterans to free education, many of whom would have likely never attended college. This national investment in education paid off with a booming postwar economy.

Almost half of all U.S. states already offer programs that provide tuition-free college to select students. Now, more states could adopt similar plans to help those who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. Last April, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced her intent to provide free college to the state's essential pandemic workers.

But piecemeal state offerings may not be enough, as the demand for college-educated workers grows. Proponents of free college warn that without dramatically expanding access to higher education, the U.S. could be left behind as other countries out-educate and outperform.

Free College Could Help Close the Opportunity Gap

The old adage that you need to have money to make money applies to the current U.S. higher education system. While federal financial aid and scholarships help students afford college, these resources may be challenging to access and understand, particularly for first-generation college students who need them the most.

Under Biden’s plan, only students whose families make less than $125,000 a year would be eligible for free college tuition.

The opportunity gap leaves behind minority and low-income students at every education level. The inability to afford college is the last — and widest — gap. For prospective students who don't have the guidance necessary to navigate existing aid options, universal free college could be a lifeline.

To ensure that free college tuition goes only to those in need, Biden's plan follows Senator Elizabeth Warren's by imposing an income limit: Only families making less than $125,000 per year would be eligible.

The concern that the wealthy will benefit from free college more than the poor arises in part from the fact that only a small percentage of first-generation and low-income students make it to graduation. Without the high premium placed on higher education, though, this trend could change.

In any case, universal public systems are designed to help everybody; worrying whether the rich will benefit is beside the point. In a 2015 op-ed for The Washington Post, Sanders proclaimed that no one should be excluded, not when education is "the basis for full economic and political participation, and … all prosperity."

3 Reasons Why College Should Not Be Free

The Free-College Model Is Unproven

Proponents of free college say it will lead to a more educated populace, but there's no clear link between free college and an educated workforce. The three most college-educated countries — South Korea, Japan, and Canada — do not offer free college.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries that pioneered free college rank low in college-degree attainment. Finland's free public colleges accept just 33% of applicants, on par with some small, private liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Free college could reduce graduation rates by impacting education quality.

Evidently, government-subsidized higher education and a high level of college attainment do not always go hand in hand. The U.S. maintains the highest average tuition rates in the world and funnels a smaller percentage of federal funds into higher education than do other countries. Yet the country also boasts one of the highest enrollment percentages, with around 20 million students currently enrolled in college.

In this sense, free college could end up reducing graduation rates by negatively impacting education quality and reducing enrollment at private institutions, which tend to graduate more of their students.

Similar issues led England to do away with free college starting in 1998. According to researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, "The gap in degree attainment between high- and low-income families more than doubled" while enrollment soared in England throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Financial Aid Already Reduces the Cost of College

Despite the shocking sticker price of college, most students don't pay the full amount. In 2017-18, 86% of students received financial aid, including Pell Grants for low-income students. Factoring in aid from the federal government, state, and school can dramatically reduce the cost of college, sometimes even making it free.

Those who can't afford college can take advantage of Pell Grants and public service loan forgiveness, which cancels the remaining education debt of students who work in public service for 10 years.

These debt forgiveness programs echo the free-college models of some European countries, where students receive a free postsecondary education in exchange for serving the country for a period of time after graduation.

College — Not Just Tuition — Needs an Overhaul

Plans to subsidize college at greater levels assume that the U.S. higher education system is working well, but the reality is that 40% of first-time, full-time college students fail to graduate within six years.

If the cost of education alone forces students to drop out, free college should presumably result in higher completion rates. Yet Pell Grants already make community college free for low-income students, and graduation rates at two-year schools are even lower than they are at four-year institutions.

“Making tuition and fees free to students is unlikely to move the needle much … as community college is already free to low-income students … and yet we continue to see paltry completion rates.” Source: — Michael B. Horn, Senior Contributor at Forbes Link:More Info

According to a 2019 report on college completion by ReUp Education, the top reason that students leave college isn't financial hardship but rather the difficulty of juggling life responsibilities. The low completion rates suggest that most college students need streamlined, time-effective education options.

Traditional college, even when free, simply doesn't work for many low-income, minority, and nontraditional students. Pushing students toward a four-year liberal arts education ignores more cost- and time-effective alternatives, such as online programs, vocational training, and skill-specific bootcamps.

By shifting the expense of four-year college from students to taxpayers, colleges could face less pressure to innovate their product and make it more affordable.

The Future of Free College in the U.S.

The promise of free college has struck a chord with young people, but don't bust open that college-savings piggy bank just yet. Although Biden supports free community college and free four-year college (to a degree), only the former has been reintroduced since his election. Like large-scale student debt forgiveness, free college awaits approval from Congress.

Like large-scale student debt forgiveness, free college awaits approval from Congress.

The free-college proposals most likely to make it into a bill include an income cap, meaning families earning above a certain threshold would still have to pay tuition. Such plans would also only apply to public colleges, with private universities continuing to charge a premium.

Lifetime earnings data indicate that college pays off. The return on investment of a college degree is substantial enough to outpace even the growing cost of tuition. Still, the high dropout and student debt default rates reveal a darker side. Making college, and college's many benefits, more equitable necessitates that tuition rates go down.

More than a dozen U.S. higher education institutions already charge students nothing for tuition. Colleges with free tuition, such as Berea College, typically offer work-study programs or rely on private donations.

Students in search of free or cheap education should also consider massive open online courses, online programs, vocational schools, and employer-paid programs.


GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.

Feature Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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