Free College Tuition: A Financial Burden, Not A Breakthrough
College: an institution where many young people aspire to go to receive a higher level of education preparatory to starting a career. Some might even consider attending college to be a part of the typical American Dream. However, this dream is difficult or even unattainable for some students because of the cost of higher education. The cost of college varies depending on the type of school; however, the average tuition is anywhere from ten thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars, and many colleges are even more expensive, (Price Tag). The increasing price of college over the years has led many to wonder: should college tuition be free? This highly-debated topic is important to most people living in the United States. This decision would define many high schooler’s future. College students, who, if a decision were to be made while they are still in college, would be directly affected. In addition, families of college students along with the general public would be impacted by this issue — whether change occurs or not — because they are — or may become — the ones paying for college. Although many believe the idea of free college sounds ideal, if college tuition were to be free, an influx of students would cause higher degrees to lose value, future generations would lack financial responsibility, both trade schools and private schools would suffer financial burdens and impact the public negatively, society would become less driven, and debt would still be an issue; on both state and national levels.
Having college tuition be free for students would allow more students to attend and graduate; however, this would result in major repercussions. More students going to college means more students are graduating with degrees. Without tuition being a limiting factor, many more students may go on to receive higher degrees such as masters degrees. This has the potential to devalue these higher degrees, making masters degrees as common as bachelor’s degrees are today. Procon.org notes Rita McGrath, Associate Professor at Columbia Business School, saying, “‘Having a bachelor’s used to be more rare and candidates with the degree could therefore be more choosy and were more expensive to hire. Today, that is no longer the case,’” (Procon.org). Professor McGrath essentially means that graduates with bachelor’s degrees used to be seen as more desirable in the workplace, but as more students continue their education to earn this degree, it has become more common. Many careers today require a bachelor’s degree as a minimum, even at entry levels. If college were to be free, this trend would only worsen. Supporters of free tuition argue that if more students earn more degrees, society will become more educated and innovative. In the article “Pros and Cons of Free College Tuition”, the author notes how “This then creates a more well-educated workforce and a population that has better critical thinking skills. This could lead to more innovation in all areas of society,” (Andersen). She explains that if more people receive a higher education, society would become more productive and progressive. One could argue that as competition for jobs rises, the job seekers will need to become more creative and innovative to make themselves stand out. However, jobs may become scarcer as competition rises, creating the opposite effect. On the other hand, because there would be so much competition for the existing positions, there will also be more degree holders either unemployed or having to take lesser jobs, for example, an engineer working a retail job.
In addition, with a lack of obligation to pay tuition would come a lack of financial burden. Because there would be no financial repercussions pushing students to work hard, students might not be as motivated, and “without that financial drive, we might see more laziness and lackadaisical behavior from our students,” (Andersen). Students may even drop out of school, causing laziness — not innovativeness — to surface in society. It is a lesson often seen in younger children: those who have everything given to them without having to earn it in some way develop a sense of entitlement. This attitude of “deserving” a free college education could very well result in adults who have no drive to succeed, either in school or in the workplace. Today, many students receive merit scholarships based on their grades, and are required to maintain a certain GPA to continue the scholarship. Free tuition would remove the need to work hard to keep the merit scholarships, resulting in unmotivated students with average grades, far below the quality students most institutions turn out today. This laziness would likely follow students through college and their career, leading to an overall less productive society.
Advocates of free college tuition say that tuition fees have the biggest financial impact on the nation and families with students in college. However, the bigger impact stems from students dropping out. Bob Luebke from Civitas Institute writes how “A free tuition proposal would make more sense if there was a great demand for certain fields and college access was a significant problem. But it’s not. If you look at the data, the bigger problem is that many students don’t finish college. Only about 55 percent of students graduate six years after starting,”. Students dropping out has a larger financial impact on the nation than tuition fees do. Procon.org elaborates on this subject by writing how “Students who started bachelor’s degrees in the fall of 2002 but did not graduate within six years accounted for $3.8 billion in lost income, $566 million in lost federal income taxes, and $164 million in lost state income taxes in one year,”. Some may argue that having free college tuition would keep more students from dropping out due to financial hardships. In actuality, free tuition would have a very minimal impact on dropout rates. This is because students are more likely to dropout due to other factors. Luebke goes on to note how “The problem is not access but completion… For the most part, money is not the problem. It’s usually factors like family issues, or transportation,”. Because many dropouts are not caused by financial stress, free tuition would not make a significant difference in the dropout rate, and therefore not have such a positive impact on national finances as many initially believe.
Not only would the workforce see an increase in laziness, but trade schools would suffer as well if college tuition were free. A trade profession is one that requires twelve to twenty-four months of focused schooling, in conjunction with or followed by on-the-job training, but not a college degree. Occupations such as plumbers, electricians, and mechanics are all necessary in society, and are in high demand. While free tuition would get more students into college, it would also pull more students away from trade schools, increasing the demand for these important jobs. Procon.org recognizes a study completed over trade professions, or ‘middle-skill jobs’, writing, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘middle-skill’ jobs will make up 45% of projected job openings through 2014, but as of 2012 only 25% of the workforce had the skills to fill those jobs,’”(Procon.org). Students’ declining interest in trade professions is creating a skills gap in the workforce between the middle and high-skill jobs. Free college tuition would only increase this gap and cause an even sharper decline of middle-skill workers — workers that society needs to function. As the need for these professions increase, prices for these services will likely increase over time due to the low supply yet high demand for these necessary services. Essentially, free college tuition would be more detrimental than helpful to the general public because it would pull students from necessary jobs and cause a spike in other prices. Moreover, if students who might have otherwise gone to a trade school go to college instead, those students would likely be overqualified for their future jobs.
In addition to trade schools suffering from free tuition, private schools would also be negatively impacted. Currently, public and private schools can compete for the same student because students typically select the school they wish to study at and then consider funding tuition. Private schools are often smaller in numbers which allows for a more personal learning environment. This is great for students looking to avoid large classes and crowds. However, if public colleges were to offer free tuition, students otherwise attracted to the private institution might be pulled to the public school to save money. Vince Norton writes about the likely impact of this, writing how “freshman enrollment will drop 10%… the impact of a 10% decline in student enrollment at an average private university that would normally enroll 500 new freshmen at $50,000 annual tuition revenue [would have a] financial impact [of] $2.5 million. And that’s not even factoring in the discounting that will need to be done in order to remain attractive to the 450 entering freshmen,”. This means that after four years, there would be ten million dollars less in revenues. Not only would free tuition in public colleges financially hurt private schools, but it would also limit and hurt students. As previously considered, private colleges are often good options for those wishing to learn in a smaller, more personalized environment. Should these schools begin to be cut as options for students, those who might otherwise have gone to one would be forced into a public school where they would be less comfortable and less successful.
For most students, going to college means student loans. However, there are positive aspects to student loans that, if they were to be taken away, would have negative effects on society. Student loans are often relatively large sums of money. Having to handle such large amounts of money teaches students how to budget and be financially responsible. In the article “Pros and Cons of Free College Tuition”, the author points out that “college loans are often the first major financial dealing that people work with. Paying them off in a timely manner proves you know how to budget your money, skills people use again and again,” (Andersen). In other words, handling student loans financially prepares students for budgeting other large, important items such as houses and cars in the future. Some may argue that without having to pay off tuition fees, one might be able to purchase a house or a car sooner and/or more frequently because of the lack of previous debt. A ProCon.org article supports this idea by writing how “20% of millennials are homeowners, and most millennials say their student debt has delayed home ownership by seven years on average… Less than 50% of women and 30% of men had passed the ‘transition to adulthood’ milestones by age 30 (finishing school, moving out of their parents’ homes, being financially independent, marrying, and having children); in 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had completed these milestones by age 30,” (Worth It). Essentially, before tuition was as high as it is currently, young adults were able to purchase important items and complete traditional adult milestones. But, because of the financial burden of tuition, fewer adults are able to accomplish these tasks. However, not having learned financial responsibility from student loans, debt would still likely result.
The elimination of tuition fees may seem like students and their families would save a lot of money. However, college still has to be paid for in some way. Many propose that the main source of funding for colleges would be from taxes, which would increase significantly. This is unfair to the general public. Not everyone chooses to go to college; yet, everyone would pay for college regardless. Moreover, “[the public]
will pay for the free tuition while soon-to-be college dropouts use student loans. Then, when the students attending “free” college default on their student loan, the taxpayer will once again shoulder the burden,” (Norton). Essentially, instead of an individual paying for the financial repercussions he or she has created, the taxpayers of America would. Individuals would not have a financial burden to carry, only further encouraging laziness and dropouts. Other options proposed to pay for college include cutting military funding and creating longer waitlists to get into schools. Some may believe that cutting college tuition fees is necessary because it would allow for more low-income students to attend and graduate college. A CollegeRaptor article supports this position by addressing how “Some students drop out because they do not have the ability to pay for tuition all four years. Making college tuition free would eliminate this reason for not graduating,” (Andersen). Andersen notes that poorer students who might have otherwise dropped out would be able to graduate, which in turn increases college graduation rates. However, with the likely effect that taxes would skyrocket, more students may be driven into poverty instead of college.
The financial aspect of free college tuition would be further complicated once state budgeting is considered. Each state would have to individually decide how to finance college. Many states already face stresses of creating and maintaining budgets. With the many additional students free tuition would probably attract, state budgets would be strained. States with lots of public universities could be financially devastated. Free college tuition would likely “be a reduction, or termination, of other core safety net programs which support low-income families,” (Ayres). The burden of free college tuition would not just fall to the national government, but to each individual state as well, depending on how the law is written. Another financial issue that will surely come up is how states will deal with out-of-state students. Currently a student who attends a public university in another state pays additional tuition to make up for not being a taxpayer in that state. If tuition is free but the state still has the burden of supporting that same out-of-state student, where will the money come from? Additionally, colleges may become less efficient in saving money. With free tuition, students and their families may become less driven to save money in the system. Certain institutions would know they will receive funding regardless of what funding is provided for colleges, which “might result in wasteful spending habits, especially since free colleges would no longer need to compete with private institutions for enrollment,’ (Ayres). If colleges were to become less efficient financially, this could continue to raise both the national debt, and each states’ debts. This, in turn, would negatively affect the national economy.
The national economy would also still be affected by student loans. Free college tuition would not necessarily cause student loans to completely disappear. College tuition only covers the cost of attending school. This means that even if tuition were to become free, students would still have to pay for housing, textbooks, food, fees, and other college expenses. A brief survey of some large midwestern universities reveals that room and board costs are currently around ten-thousand to twelve-thousand dollars, while books cost an additional nine-hundred to twelve-hundred dollars annually. These costs are the same for every student and will continue to rise. Free tuition will not negate these expenses and many students will still be forced to take out student loans to pay for them, so students loans would still be prevalent, (Price Tag). In Vittana’s Finance Blog, the author writes how “Some students would be able to find a job to cover these expenses. Others would not. That means the student loan economy would certainly shrink. It would not disappear,” (Ayres). Therefore, college would still have a price to be paid. In addition, colleges cannot keep students from pulling out money for a student loan. This means that students who may have to travel to get to school could pull loans to pay for the cost of traveling. The article “Why Free College Is a Bad Idea” notes that “the cost of attendance as calculated by the school and regulated by the U.S. Department of Education far outweighs tuition and includes room and board, transportation and more. And schools can’t prohibit students from borrowing more than the cost of tuition. The result? Students will enroll at a “free college” and borrow money for the cost of attendance. Then, they will drop out and have a student loan – but no skills,” (Norris). Essentially, students lacking financial responsibility could pull student loans out for anything. Guidelines for student loans state that a student can use the money for all the costs of attending college: room and board, books, supplies and equipment, groceries, transportation, even personal and housing supplies, (Helhoski). These broad categories would allow a student to recklessly borrow an amount up to the COA, or Cost of Attendance annually, which could mean financial disaster after graduation. Free tuition would make no difference in these cases.
Throughout the nation, the question of whether or not college tuition should be free continues to be debated. While it may allow more students to attend and graduate college and study a major that interests them, having college tuition be free would be more detrimental than helpful to the nation. The likely drastic incline of students majoring with higher degrees would result in these degrees losing their value. The influx of students would also cause many to work jobs they are overqualified for. Future generations would lack financial responsibility because they would never have to learn to budget with as high student loans, which would never fully disappear anyway. Public schools would pull students away from trade and private schools, causing these institutions to suffer a financial burden, and the nation to see an increase of prices. Laziness would begin to surface in society because of the lack of financial repercussions given to students if they should skip class. Issues over state budgeting would become more controversial. Overall, the negative effects of implementing free college tuition outweigh its few positive aspects.