Is there a case for Free College?

The case for free college is not a new discussion or idea. It’s been done at different times in varying degrees in several states throughout our nation’s history. There are, of course, several compelling reasons to offer reduced or free college education to our nation’s citizenry. We do, after all, provide “free” schooling for students from K-12, so why not continue that on to a two or four-year degree from an institution of higher learning? Perhaps it is appropriate to implement at the state level, on a case by case basis, but should it be driven from a federal initiative or mandate instead? Let’s explore the issue and take a look several of the contributing factors. In doing so I hope that you’ll come away much better equipped to form and articulate your stance on the matter.

The call for free college in the United States was given new-found strength when former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders openly advocated for tuition free college at public universities and community colleges during his campaign and is still pursuing the issue in congress.

Further bolstering the attention given to the issue are the recent actions taken by the State of New York which passed legislation providing students of the state-run colleges free tuition, with a few caveats of course (like having to live and work in the state or the free tution converts to a loan). With the enactment of the new Excelsior Scholarships, New York becomes the fourth such state to offer some form of free college education to its residents. The question now is will the rest of the 50 states follow suit, or will we have a federal initiative to make college free for all?

Most everyone agrees that greater education leads to higher incomes and, generally speaking, more opportunity for advancement in life. Higher education is certainly the most viable pathway to escape the throngs of poverty.  The logic follows that by making college free for everyone that we will enable potential students, previously shut out of educational attainment, with a pathway to pursue their dreams through education. After all, one of the greatest challenges faced by employers today is the lack of people equipped with the necessary skills to do the work available. Wouldn’t free college help ameliorate this drag on the economy and national prosperity? A cursory glance at the subject would incline most to give a resounding “Yes!” to that inquiry.

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Conceptually and on the surface this makes sense. So where does the resistance arise to implementing this potential panacea to the economic woes of millions of Americans?

When dealing with issues of resources and costs there must be a return generated to justify the expenditure. Running a college campus requires immense resources. The buildings, the salaries of professors and administrative personnel, the payroll for grounds crews and maintenance, utility costs, student recruitment efforts and so on all contribute to the massive requirements to keep the institution up and running. So where will the money required to pay for all of this come from? The quick answer is taxpayers (that’s you for all the potential students that can get a job after college).  The governments responsible for implementing such a plan have no resources of their own, they get what they have from taxpayers, or the parties that buy the debt they issue. This is much less problematic at the state level than the federal level where taxpayers have a somewhat greater influence on their legislators.  Taxes will be raised and or debt will be issued (which taxpayers are also on the hook for) to pay for it all. This aspect offers potential justification for state led plans. After all, there is a strong case here for state’s rights and local decision-making. But, how do we gauge the return, or the value, gained by the citizens of the state, let alone the nation? Here is where we run into myriad issues that make such plans potentially problematic.

The most glaring issue is again, that of the return to society. It may not be emotionally satisfying or appeasing, but not all college majors are created equal in terms of economic or societal impact. There is no swelling trove of jobs awaiting philosophy majors. Society does not place the same premium on anthropology as it does on those trained to create the next wave of artificial intelligence programming. We do not value, as a whole, in economic terms, someone who desires to pursue a Ph.D. in medieval Scottish literature the same way we do a molecular biologist with their sights set on curing cancer. A college graduate that majored in a field where the starting salary for someone with that education is $40,000 will not provide the same level economic benefit as someone who produces $100,000 of output. This doesn’t mean they a valued lesser as a person, they are not, economic value and the intrinsic value of human life are wonderfully independent, but it does mean that their economic output is substantially less. This aspect alone is enough reason to give us serious reservations about such plans.

Now we venture into the issue of supply and demand. Generally speaking the more of something that is available, the less we tend to value it. If you have 8 bottles of water and I offer to sell you another for $5 you will probably tell me to take a hike (and rightfully so!). If you just got done running a few miles and there is no water at your finishing point, you are much more inclined to pay that $5 if I now offer you that bottle. This principle applies to education as well. There are already too many college students graduating with degrees that are simply not in demand by today’s economy. By making college free the trend would only be exacerbated.

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In addition to the already excessively high level of college graduates, in terms of economic absorption capacity by the real economy, there are myriad other issues that need intense scrutiny and thought before moving forward.  How would tuition rates be set nationally? Are all majors approved for free tuition? Where are all the extra professors going to come from and who is going to pay for them? Unitl the supply of professors increases won’t there be a diminishment of quality in the education provided as thinly stretched educators strive to adequately teach more and more students? What about building and equipment costs to handle the influx of students? How will we determine who gets into certain colleges with real limited physical capacity to handle the students? Will we do away with admissions standards? Aren’t they unfair after all? Shouldn’t EVERYONE be able to go to college wherever they want? These questions, and to be sure, innumerable more, aren’t reasons in and of themselves to dismiss the idea of free college, but they should give us serious reason to pause and thoroughly scrutinize the idea itself, let alone the means of implementation.

The notion of college being “free” is certainly appealing to, well, everyone that would like to go to college. The problem is that nothing is truly “free” and the costs of providing that education will be incurred by somebody and they will assuredly be substantial. We may not particularly like it, but today’s world revolves around output in goods and services and we value certain outputs more than others.  We have to ensure that we aren’t going to make an already ubiquitous problem worse by churning out more graduates with skills that simply aren’t in demand by today’s economy while doing so at tremendous real expense. Perhaps we should be exploring other options. Maybe we need to look at expanding the scope and scale of internships, apprenticeships, and more technical training for high skilled manufacturing jobs. Maybe we need more public private partnerships between industry and universities to train students for the jobs that currently exist and the ones that are coming. Perhaps we should explore more virtual solutions for education delivery like that of the Edx platform developed by Harvard and MIT, bringing low-cost and high quality skills and credentials to students around the globe. We need to be looking for solutions. Free college is potentially one, however is it the best one, or one among many? Time will tell as the discussion continues.


Michael is a believer in higher education, having earned a B.S. in General Management from Western Kentucky University and a M.S. in Finance and Economic Policy from the Unviersity of London. He also serves on the board of directors of the Kentucky Higher Education Assitance Authority and the Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation.


Tell me, what are you FOR

 Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes

Tell me, what are you FOR?

We have choices in this world. We literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of choices each and every day. One of which is the way we choose to articulate our ideas, our views, our wishes, and our desires.

Do you wish more people listened to you? Do you wish more people came around to your way of thinking?

Tell them what you are FOR

If you want to build a better world around you, start by telling people what you are for instead of what you are against.

We can choose to frame our ideas, our arguments, and our desired outcomes in either a positive or negative light. In a world so full of darkness people are drawn to the light. They are hungry for it, they crave it, and they desperately want to find it. We can be that source of light by communicating our ideas in a positive manner.

We have the power to choose.

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This principle cuts across subjects. It transcends cultures. It is not inhibited by the audience’s or listener’s background.

We have become so accustomed, as a society, in our daily interactions to espouse what we are against. Sometimes this IS necessary. Sometimes we must take a stand for what we will not tolerate and where we will not bend. In certain cases loss avoidance is a better motivator for change than potential benefits. In the fields of economics and decision theory this is known as “loss aversion”.  In certain instances it is helpful to inform people of the deleterious effects of particular ideologies or actions.

But, more often than not, especially in trying to bring others around to our way of thinking, it is more effective to tell them what you are for, why a certain idea or action will BENEFIT them, and what they will gain from it. Describe to them how they will be made better off by adopting your point of view.

The list of potential examples we can apply this concept to is truly endless. From daily interactions to advocating for monumental changes in public policy there is no shortage of potential applications of this concept:

Do you want to see your significant other spend more time paying attention to you than nose deep in their phone on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram? Instead of nagging, griping, or complaining about it (which is sure to drive them even deeper into their phones) show them that interacting WITH you is the more attractive option.  Ask them to take a walk with you. Ask them to listen to an album with you. Ask them to help you start a project that THEY have been thinking of doing.

Do you want to see your local church filled to capacity? Tell people (and SHOW them) about the love of Jesus. Tell them about the beautiful community of fellowship you have at your church that they can be a part of. Tell them about the freedom they gain from worry, from anxiety, from despair, from bondage, from hopelessness. Tell them about what they gain when they come to know Christ. And let them SEE it in your daily interactions. Let them see the joy, the happiness, the love that is palpable in your life. Let them see Christ in you and the difference it makes in how you live your life.

Do you want to see a more free and prosperous society for all people? Then tell people about the virtues and benefits of liberty. Advocate for limited government and couch your arguments in ways that highlight the positive attributes of liberty to people.  Railing against Statism and big government won’t  win anyone over to our side of thinking. We have to show them why liberty is the best way and how it is relevant to their life.

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Do you want to see more people adopt a healthy lifestyle?  Show them how easy it can be to start exercising. Tell them about how easy it can be to start making better food choices. Help them imagine a life where they have more energy to play with their kids and grandkids. Help them understand that feeling and looking good will help them be more confident and comfortable in ALL areas of their lives.

Are you a proponent of competitive capitalism? Then tell folks how markets based upon voluntary exchange and unencumbered by excessive government regulation and intervention foster more competition and better outcomes in terms of lower prices and more choices for consumers.  Tell them how fewer regulations and government control afford fewer opportunities for cronyism and political representatives that aren’t beholden to special corporate interests.  Illuminate for them the greater opportunities THEY will have when taxes are lower and entrepreneurs can create more and better paying jobs.

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If we are going to move our society to a place where more people are happier, more free, more fulfilled, more peaceful, and more prosperous we have to create that world in our minds and our words first. We have to give others reasons to join us on that journey. To be certain there ARE instances when ideas and intuitions and ideologies must be decried and resisted, but we have to have something to go toward. It does us no good to complain about something without also proposing a solution. We must have and present alternative ways of doing things. We have to give them reasons to embrace those alternatives. We have to show people why our solutions, our ideas, and our polices will help them and those they care about live a life that they WANT. Tell them what you are for, tell them how they can benefit from it,  and tell them what you are building. Then invite them to come along.