However, tuition-free college is still debated on the federal level, and the question remains on the table.
So, what are the arguments for and against tuition-free college?
Here’s a list of the weightiest arguments and an in-depth analysis of their validity.
Pro 1: It’s more affordable for students.
One argument in favor of tuition-free college is that college is out of reach for many Americans.
- True: At least 71% of adults find it more difficult to pay tuition than it was for their parents’ generation.
- True: College costs increase more than 7 times faster than salaries.
- True: More than 60 percent of college students have taken out student loans.
- False: In 2020, college students spent $21 billion on clothing and shoes plus $15 billion on personal care products.
Takeaway: For most Americans, the cost of college tuition is not affordable. However, college students in the US overspend billions on non-essentials.
Con 1: Not enough jobs for college graduates.
One argument against free college is that it is a job requirement. Now that there aren’t enough jobs to accommodate every graduate, why offer free college education for everyone?
- True: Too many college graduates have diplomas that do not match job opportunities.
- True: At least 43% of US college graduates are underemployed in their first jobs.
- False: Many colleges prepare students for jobs that don’t exist in the present, including robotics, artificial intelligence, and telemedicine.
- False: College education is not only about preparing for careers. It’s also about learning communication, empathy, money management, and so on.
Takeaway: Aside from offering free college to all, there is a need to implement better job prediction, job-matching, and enrolment choice as well as to create a healthier economy that increases job opportunities.
Pro 2: It’s an important basic need.
If we view higher education as a fundamental right, some college options would have to be free of charge and funded by the taxpayers.
- True: Higher education has become more important due to rapid industrialization and technological innovations. More jobs in the near future will require college-educated workers.
- True: Free-tuition colleges nationwide can help students who most need financial help, as well as states that need to have a skilled workforce.
- False: Other basic needs must be met before students can learn effectively, such as nutrition, exercise, transportation, and neighborhood environments.
- False: A steady source of income is more important than free college tuition.
Takeaway: Free college tuition is not the most important of all basic human needs.
Con 2: The government cannot afford it.
Another argument against offering free college nationwide is that it will require a huge amount of money that the government doesn’t have.
- True: Eliminating tuition at all public colleges and universities would cost at least $79 billion a year, according to a Department of Education report, and taxpayers would need to foot the bill.
- True: America must meet repayment schedules for its foreign debt, such as $1.18 trillion to China, $1.03 trillion to Japan, Brazil, Ireland, the U.K., and others.
- False: Only 5.4% of America’s GDP goes to education. The US public education budget is more than $700 billion or about $11,825.89 per student.
- False: There’s money set aside for higher education every year. For 2020, the US government already allocated approximately $8.12 trillion for higher education.
Takeaway: The government has the money to fund tuition-free college for all.
Pro 3: It improves academic output.
Another common discussion is that forgiving all student debts will improve academic output of current and future students.
- True: There will be fewer working students and more graduates. College students working more than 20 hours a week are less likely to earn a degree in six years.
- True: More students will complete college degrees. For instance, those who enroll at a for-profit institution are 59 percent less likely to earn a degree compared to those who enroll in public institutions.
- False: Free tuition is not the primary factor in academic performance. The strongest factors of student achievement include teacher quality, quality of teaching environment, and materials, as well as physical and mental student health.
- False: Loan forgiveness is not proven to affect academic output. There are existing loan-forgiveness programs based on income-driven repayment plans and, “depending on the plan, remaining loans are forgiven at the end of a 20- or 25-year period,” says an NPR report.
Takeaway: Free tuition and loan forgiveness are not proven to improve academic performance and output. Other elements strongly affect education quality.
Con 3: State schools will spend less per student.
There are growing concerns that a combination of federal and local tax dollars will decrease per-student support, which is not the goal.
- True: State subsidies can motivate state institutions to spend less on each student.
- True: Many for-profit colleges are under large, publicly-traded companies that game the Federal financial aid system by socializing losses and privatizing profits.
- False: Institutional checks and balances can curb any discovered abuses and ensure fiscal responsibility.
Takeaway: Public accountability will ensure that tax dollars provided to free colleges will be maximized. At the same time, issues of education output quality, cost transparency, and corruption must be addressed.
Pro 4: It can jumpstart the economy.
One argument in favor of free college at the national level is that forgiving all student loans can revitalize the economy. The $1.6 trillion federal student loan debt is “about twice the current budget for the Defense Department and around 22 times the budget for the Education Department,” says an NPR report.
- True: Improving economic performance is a key reason why countries use tax revenues to pay for basic education. College-educated workers have advanced literacy and critical thinking skills.
- True: In the long term, it can also decrease unemployment by creating up to 1.5 million jobs a year and increase America’s GDP by up to $108 billion a year.
- False: Cancelling the student loan debt of all 45 million borrowers can motivate students to borrow more knowing that it will be wiped clean by the government or give them potentially higher leverage.
- False: In the next 10 years, the five fastest-growing jobs in the USA will earn an average of $24,000 a year and will not require four-year college diplomas: solar panel installers, wind turbine technicians, home health aides, personal care aides, and occupational therapy assistants.
Takeaway: Forgiving all college student loan debts can jumpstart the economy. At the same time, there are other high wage-earning options that do not require four-year college degrees.
Con 4: Education will be devalued.
Yet another argument is that offering free education to young people will be a waste of money because they’re less likely to take it seriously.
- True: Free tuition addresses the price of college attendance but does not improve teaching quality. In fact, free tuition without a budget to add resources to colleges with increased enrollment can lower education quality.
- True: Students who don’t pay for college are not worried about the effects of skipping classes, not completing a course, or of dropping out of college.
- True: Free college can decrease persistence and success. In challenging or rigorous classes, many avoid failure by withdrawing, which requires payment to repeat a course. If tuition is free, there’s no incentive to finish what they start.
- False: Degrees with guaranteed job placement have a high value.
Takeaway: Price is not the only value element of free college education, so its devaluation is unlikely. However, issues of education quality, persistence to completion, and job closures must be addressed.
Pro 5: It improves workforce competencies.
Another argument for free college is that it is now a requirement for most jobs, so much so that people use up their savings and even assume massive debts to get a college degree.
- True: The value of college degrees has changed along with changes in technology, the economy, and lifestyles. Now, it’s easier to get a steady, decent-paying job with a college degree.
- True: A high-quality free college education can teach values, ethics, critical thinking, abstract problem-solving, and “learn how to learn,” an increasingly important skill in times of rapid change. Technological change will make these skills more valuable than ever.
- True: Year on year, bachelor’s degree holders can earn at least $32,000 more than those with a high school diploma.
- False: Employers say that students are not learning soft skills and workplace competencies in college. It takes more than a major to be prepared for the job market. In fact, skills training cannot replace higher education.
Takeaway: Although tuition-free college can improve workplace competencies, a college degree does not always guarantee a job or significant wealth.
Con 5: Tuition isn’t the only barrier to college education.
One significant argument in this list of cons is that free tuition does not address the most significant barriers to college education.
- True: The non-tuition costs of food, clothing, housing, transportation, and personal expenses increase the cost of college from 50% to 80%. Surveys show that about 58,000 college students are food insecure and homeless.
- True: The financial aid application process is complex for many students. Federal financial aid, grant awards, and loan eligibility standards cannot be easily retrieved anytime from a website by every potential college student.
Takeaway: To ensure the viability of a national tuition-free college program, many other barriers to a college diploma should be directly addressed.
Pro 6: College grads pay more taxes to the government.
In terms of governance, one strong argument for free college is that more employed college graduates mean that the government earns more taxes to provide better serves to everyone.
- True: Studies indicate that, within a 40-year career, a college graduate can earn about $650,000 more than a high school graduate or up to $800,000 more by retirement age.
- True: Each college graduate pays more than $510,000 in taxes during their lifetime, while high school graduates pay $273,000 less.
- True: For every $28,000 state investment in a student who earns a degree in four years, there is a resulting $355,000 in reduced government spending and increased tax revenues across all levels of government.
- False: Americans practice tax avoidance worth almost $200 billion each year.
Takeaway: College graduates can earn more and pay more taxes, but some don’t. At the same time, due to government corruption, taxes in the billions benefit a few.
Con 6: The higher education system cannot be changed.
Still another argument against free college is that the higher education system is a bastion of stability in a constantly changing world. This consistent resistance to new ideas means the system won’t change and offer free tuition for all.
- True. In colleges and universities, implementing change can be slow, difficult, or even impossible. Much value is given to tradition as well as established systems and processes.
- True. Due to conflicts of interest, real change is not expected from the higher education system, not by the dozens of higher college education groups in Washington, D. C., nor by college or university presidents or boards of trustees.
- True. And change certainly cannot be expected from student loan providers. They have too much to lose.
- False: The US higher education system can be reformed by teachers who care, students who pay, and employers who need them.
Takeaway: The US tertiary education system can be changed, not by those who have much to lose, but by those who have more to gain.
Pro 7: It is an excellent investment.
Another argument is that investing in education isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s smart economics.
- True: Eliminating tuition fees at all public colleges and universities would cost at least $79 billion a year. However, in terms of lost revenues and increased social services, out of school or unemployed young Americans cost taxpayers about $93 billion a year ($1.6 trillion over their lifetimes).
- True: Low graduation rates can cause the states to lose at least more than $100 million in income taxes and at least $15 million in federal income taxes.
- True: On the individual level, the cost of illiteracy in terms of social and economic effects costs more than $300.8 billion in lost business productivity and earnings as well as expenses for social welfare, crime, and health.
- True: An uneducated society will cost hundreds of billions of dollars for health services, welfare, and unemployment benefits, lost tax revenues, lost productivity, and poor economic competitiveness as well as poor civic engagement.
Takeaway: It costs less to offer free tuition for all than to let Americans go through life without a college degree.
Con 7: There are many free college options.
Another argument against offering free college is that many other free college options already exist. So, why spend billions of tax dollars to create a free college system for all?
- True: There are tuition-free colleges in at least 20 US states that charge fees for room, board, and so on, such as at Berea College, College of the Ozarks, Deep Springs College, Warren Wilson College, and the Webb Institute.
- True: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) include free online courses open to anyone, anywhere. MOOCs such as the University of the People, Harvard EdX, and Coursera. Some require fees for a certificate.
- False: Despite the free tuition, many cannot afford the required fees for books, housing, meals, supplies, event tickets, activity fees, and other living expenses.
- False: Many cannot meet the requirements of current free college offers, such as required travel, residence, campus work, full-time attendance, or low family income.
Takeaway: Aside from offering free college to all, there is a need to improve existing alternative learning opportunities to meet more real needs of many students.
Although incomplete, this list allows a quick review of the strengths and weaknesses of the most aired arguments for and against America’s proposed free college program for all.
- Utility: College was free in the USA when it was perceived as serving the common good (public service). Individuals had to pay tuition and fees when college education was seen as serving individual benefits (social mobility, employability, job security). Now that college education is seen as beneficial to all (governance, tax revenues, national economy, global competitiveness), there is debate about making college free again.
- Practical Need: The college degree is the new high school diploma. Changing demands in the job market, developments in science and technology, as well as evolving lifestyles, require tertiary education, just as primary and secondary education were required to meet the socio-economic needs of earlier times.
- Funding: Federal and state budgets can fund a national program of free college education.
- Fiscal health: The benefits of free college education for all can, in the long run, work to balance the national budget deficit and pay off the national foreign debt.
- System Viability: Regulations used in free college systems here and in other countries can help ensure the viability, dollar maximization, best results, transparency, and accountability in the proposed free college program for all.
- Debt Forgiveness: Forgiving everyone’s student debt alone will not stop students from borrowing more money. It does not guarantee that America’s workforce competencies will improve.
- Free Tuition: Using federal and state dollars to finance a national tuition-free college system alone will make college less expensive but not necessarily more affordable. There is no clear guarantee of improved learning outcomes.
There you have it: a summary of the loudest arguments for or against the idea of making US colleges be free again. What’s your take?