Should College Be Free? The Pros and Cons

Morley Winograd, President of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, points to the economic and tax benefits that result from the higher wages of college grads. “For government, it means more revenue,” said Winograd in an interview with The Balance—the more a person earns, the more they will likely pay in taxes. In addition, “the country’s economy gets better because the more skilled the workforce this country has, the better [it’s] able to compete globally.” Similarly, local economies benefit from a more highly educated, better-paid workforce because higher earners have more to spend. “That’s how the economy grows,” Winograd explained, “by increasing disposable income.”

Why Free College Is Necessary

Free college is not a new idea, but, with higher education costs (and student loan debt) dominating public perception, it’s one that appeals to more and more people—including me. The national debate about free, public higher education is long overdue. But let’s get a few things out of the way.

College is the domain of the relatively privileged, and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future, even if tuition is eliminated. As of 2012, over half of the U.S. population has “some college” or postsecondary education. That category includes everything from an auto-mechanics class at a for-profit college to a business degree from Harvard. Even with such a broadly conceived category, we are still talking about just half of all Americans.

Why aren’t more people going to college? One obvious answer would be cost, especially the cost of tuition. But the problem isn’t just that college is expensive. It is also that going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules—rules that can change.

Eliminating tuition would probably do very little to untangle the sailor’s knot of inequalities that make it hard for most Americans to go to college. It would not address the cultural and social barriers imposed by unequal K–12 schooling, which puts a select few students on the college pathway at the expense of millions of others. Neither would it address the changing social milieu of higher education, in which the majority are now non-traditional students. (“Non-traditional” students are classified in different ways depending on who is doing the defining, but the best way to understand the category is in contrast to our assumptions of a traditional college student—young, unfettered, and continuing to college straight from high school.) How and why they go to college can depend as much on things like whether a college is within driving distance or provides one-on-one admissions counseling as it does on the price.

Given all of these factors, free college would likely benefit only an outlying group of students who are currently shut out of higher education because of cost—students with the ability and/or some cultural capital but without wealth. In other words, any conversation about college is a pretty elite one even if the word “free” is right there in the descriptor.

The discussion about free college, outside of the Democratic primary race, has also largely been limited to community colleges, with some exceptions by state. Because I am primarily interested in education as an affirmative justice mechanism, I would like all minority-serving and historically black colleges (HBCUs)—almost all of which qualify as four-year degree institutions—to be included. HBCUs disproportionately serve students facing the intersecting effects of wealth inequality, systematic K–12 disparities, and discrimination. For those reasons, any effort to use higher education as a vehicle for greater equality must include support for HBCUs, allowing them to offer accessible degrees with less (or no) debt.

The Obama administration’s free community college plan, expanded in July to include grants that would reduce tuition at HBCUs, is a step in the right direction. Yet this is only the beginning of an educational justice agenda. An educational justice policy must include institutions of higher education but cannot only include institutions of higher education. Educational justice says that schools can and do reproduce inequalities as much as they ameliorate them. Educational justice says one hundred new Universities of Phoenix is not the same as access to high-quality instruction for the maximum number of willing students. And educational justice says that jobs programs that hire for ability over “fit” must be linked to millions of new credentials, no matter what form they take or how much they cost to obtain. Without that, some free college plans could reinforce prestige divisions between different types of schools, leaving the most vulnerable students no better off in the economy than they were before.

Free college plans are also limited by the reality that not everyone wants to go to college. Some people want to work and do not want to go to college forever and ever—for good reason. While the “opportunity costs” of spending four to six years earning a degree instead of working used to be balanced out by the promise of a “good job” after college, that rationale no longer holds, especially for poor students. Free-ninety-nine will not change that.

I am clear about all of that . . . and yet I don’t care. I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality. As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. I don’t care that it will likely only benefit the high achievers among the statistically unprivileged—those with above-average test scores, know-how, or financial means compared to their cohort. Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition. President Obama justified his free community college plan on the grounds that “Every American . . . should be able to earn the skills and education necessary to compete and win in the twenty-first century economy.” Meanwhile, for-profit boosters claim that their institutions allow “greater access” to college for the public. But access to what kind of education? Those of us who believe in viable, affordable higher ed need a different kind of language. You cannot organize for what you cannot name.

Types of Publicly Funded College Tuition Programs

Before diving into the weeds of the free college debate, it’s important to note that not all free college programs are alike. Most publicly funded tuition assistance programs are restricted to the first two years of study, typically at community colleges. Free college programs also vary widely in the ways they’re designed, funded, and structured:

  • Last-dollar tuition-free programs: These programs cover any remaining tuition after a student has used up other financial aid, such as Pell Grants. Most state-run free college programs fall into this category. However, these programs don’t typically help with room and board or other expenses.
  • First-dollar tuition-free programs: These programs pay for students’ tuition upfront, although they’re much rarer than last-dollar programs. Any remaining financial aid that a student receives can then be applied to other expenses, such as books and fees. The California College Promise Grant is a first-dollar program because it waives enrollment fees for eligible students.
  • Debt-free programs: These programs pay for all of a student’s college expenses, including room and board, guaranteeing that they can graduate debt-free. But they’re also much less common, likely due to their expense.

The Future of Free College in the U.S.

Free college already exists in the U.S., albeit on a small scale. Innovative colleges such as Berea College typically offer work-study programs and rely on private donations. Students in search of free or cheap education can also pursue massive open online courses, online programs, vocational schools, and employer-paid programs.

Free-college options that seem more likely to succeed in Congress include a proposed income cap, through which only families earning above a certain threshold would have to pay tuition. This plan would also only apply to public colleges, with private universities continuing to charge a premium.

Despite the hefty price of higher education, 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, high dropout and student debt default rates reveal a darker side. Making college, and college’s many benefits, more equitable would require rates to go down.



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