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.
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.
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.