I’m all for free speech, free vacations, and free doughnuts (when applicable). But free college education, not so much.
While the idealistic notion of a free college education sounds amazing, the question of the origin of the funds is a difficult one. While it would be amazing for some of the money to come from non-profits such as Hillary Clinton’s SPARK program, much of it would likely be financed by taxpayer dollars. In my hometown, we’ve only had a public high school for 10 years— simply because many people (particularly the elderly) in our town did not want an increase in their taxes for an education that they felt would not be directly benefitting them. Given this, I know that convincing Americans, many of whom already struggle enough with paying their taxes, that a tax increase is worthwhile would be extremely difficult, to say the least.
Additionally, one of the biggest problems with a free college education is the reduction in academic competition to get a college education. It would allow people who might not have the greatest desire to go to college or to fully utilize a college education to go, perhaps just for the partying or the food. It would cause students who work tremendously hard in high school for college scholarships to not have to push themselves as hard because they will know that they can simply go to college for free.
Furthermore, many low-income students are given scholarship money from the federal government and other sources while higher income students receive considerably less (if any) financial need-based aid. Therefore, should college education be free for all students, it would technically benefit the wealthier more than the poorer in terms of the amount of additional money given towards each student’s college education.
Yet I suppose my biggest problem with the “free college” movement is our definition of free. Where do we draw the line between academic expenses and the amenities that colleges provide: the concerts, presidential debates (go WashU!), and guest speakers? Would colleges have to sacrifice some of the amenities if they all reduced the cost of education and received less money from students? Plus, there’s also room and board… if that’s not included in the free college money from taxpayers, then students might still graduate in debt. For example, in Sweden, over 85% of students graduated with student loan debt in 2013 for room and board due to the high cost of living there. And what about grad school? Would that be free, too? Or is grad school more of an amenity than a necessity in terms of getting a good post-graduation job. The questions abound.
Also, the distinction would have to be made about which colleges are free. If solely public schools were free, then the subsidization of the education might not be a drastic change for the students, especially if they’re already receiving in-state tuition and scholarships.
So what’s my solution? College is ridiculously expensive and I can certainly concede that the price tag can be incredibly burdensome, to say the least, for many students and their families.
It astounds me that not only is the US cost of higher education greater than in any other country; the quality of the education is not even the best internationally. We’re currently ranked 12th in the world for our young adults with a college education. So why aren’t we getting the optimal cost return on our education if we’re paying the most?
For this, we have to examine a bit of U.S. history. In the mid-1900s, the cost of college education in the US used to be comparatively low in relation to today. In an AlterNet article about the rapid increase in college tuition, the author reflects upon the cost of his education, citing that his yearly UChicago tuition starting in 1958 was $870 (worth $7,130 in 2016). He describes about how from the late 1950s until the mid-1980s, tuition only rose gradually, though by the mid-1980s, it escalated dramatically. He attributes the increased demand to the notion that a college education equates to increased power and wealth, and the rapid cost increase to the immediate need for colleges to expand to accommodate all of the new students. After decades of federal and state budget cuts and a rise in elitism, particularly with private universities, the US college costs have ended up being dramatically higher than those from colleges in other nations.
I suppose this has made me question if what we want is not a free education, but an education that has a more reasonable cost, like it did only decades ago. Is what we want an increase in taxes and an elimination of the college price tag or do we just want a lower cost, comparable to that of equally developed nations?
Simply from a logistical standpoint, creating a society where there can be free college is nearly unattainable, at least in the sense of making the education completely free with no cost for room, board, classes, books, amenities, any of it. And giving all students a free college education would reduce or eliminate competition for scholarships (since they would not be needed) and allow students who are not fully committed to a college education to attend. Yet what lies in the ambiguous definition of free education is a spirit which cannot be ignored, a rage against the ridiculous tuition numbers faced by students in our country and ours alone. It is a yearning to be free from the shackles of financial status and to learn and grow through an integral part of the 21st century in particular, higher education. Because higher education IS becoming increasingly necessary in the Digital Age (we are not all farmers, bum ba dum pum bum bum bum), and we must make the distinction between amenity and necessity.
To me, my college tuition is like a golf ball on the last hole of a mini golf course. I hit the golf ball, the (creepy) clown’s mouth swallows it up, and while I benefit from the great mini golf experience, I ultimately don’t get to see my golf ball’s final destination. At college, I get to enjoy the concerts and presidential debates and “free” metro pass, but aside from the physical events that the university puts on for its students and the costs of paying for teachers, property, and appliances on the property (mowing the lawn, lights, etc) I really don’t get to see where my money is going. Since I know that the university has a massive endowment, I would love to learn exactly how much of my money is being used on things that directly benefit and are worthwhile to me.So while college education shouldn’t be free, a reduction in tuition would definitely be a beneficial measure. If college could be priced similarly to other nations across the world, if we knew exactly where our money was going and why, and questioned the system and the history that has led us to this point, we’d be able to better consider making changes to it. Because the dire fate of college tuition seems to be further escalation to the point of insanity, and it’s definitely not okay. While I am no politician, a change I’d like to see is a measure that limits private universities’ abilities to increase tuition faster than US price inflation and see where that takes us. I’d also like to see more NGO welfare programs for those struggling with debt. But most of all, I’d like to see more discussion on the issue. Not just rhetoric, but actual examination of the history of college tuition and of international college tuitions because that’s how we can better shape the future. Maybe college isn’t meant to be free, but it’s certainly meant to be reasonably affordable for you and me.