One of Bernie Sanders big talking points during his Primary campaign run is free college tuition and public colleges and institutions. Something so grand is easy to get behind and while I in principle support equality in access to education I think it’s worth looking at a little more carefully in terms of costs and benefits.
A couple of years ago The Atlantic published an article that showed that the cost to giving free public higher education in the U.S. would cost $62.6 billion dollars. Now this is tuition alone, it may not include some student fees, and does not include room and board which can also be a big expense for parents. Nobody could argue though that life would get a lot easier for families or those students only having to pay living costs. So where should this money come from. We could, as a society, just decide to pay for it. It would be roughly $630 a year for the average taxpayer (approx. 100 million taxpayers in the U.S.), which means the average person’s taxes would increase to a little over $50 a month. While I could certainly afford something like that, I don’t think everyone could, nor would such a tax increase go over well.
Now Bernie Sanders has a plan to get that $75 billion through a Wall Street speculation tax. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but even if he was able to cut college tuition costs by half this might be a good thing. Of course the tuition costs are only one of the things he wants to change. He wants to stop the government from profiting off of student loans, and he also wants to allow students to be able to refinance their loans at lower interest rates. Overall I would say that he wants to make some sensible changes. Educating your people is an investment, one that pays off, and you don’t need to profit off their loans as well.
Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated public was one of the most important parts of having a successful democracy and he is quite right. So there is some big support for making college accessible to everyone. My biggest concern though is that free tuition doesn’t necessarily support this aim, and so much larger shift needs to happen.
- With free tuition my hope is that universities will shift away from the expectation of simply producing job ready individuals. My hope is that we can allow many more students who simply want to go through and learn more about philosophy, the humanities, ethics, and how science works. More of that liberal arts centered education which has shown to be very beneficial in the market place even if it doesn’t directly seem to qualify one for a particular job. With public higher education not being run under a business model anymore, then perhaps we can shift away from students being seen as products that have to yield immediate results or a directly translatable degree to a job. My university actually has a degree in Professional Golf Management. Yes I still can’t believe this is a thing. I’m not saying that such people don’t need to be educated, but the fact that you need to create a specific degree to do that job seems surprising.
- As a professor it is clear to me there are many students who don’t want to be there. I don’t see free tuition as the thing that sparks students into working hard to learn and become better people. Now may be classes could become more fun when everything isn’t so outcome based as it must be in order to meet certain performance indicators for funding, but in order for college to be of the most use to us as society several other things need to happen. The first is K-12 reform in also getting away from a business model through those compulsory years. By promoting critical thinking better, students may be able to handle college better. I feel a lot of problems I see with students today are a result of being raised in a school system that focuses on rote memorization of facts and testing, over critical thinking skills. A system in which getting the grade is more important than how you get there. We also need to promote the value of education in general. Perhaps it’s a bit of a chicken and egg since running schools like a business tends to put people in the mindset that knowledge is only valuable when it is directly applicable to a job, but we all need to be better in promoting how a broader knowledge base has benefits beyond just our job, since being in a democracy and being part of a pluralistic society requires us to be multidimensional in the knowledge we are proficient in.
We also need to stop promoting college education as the be all and end all of being valuable in society. In many countries with free tuition students much choose a track at the age of 16 as to whether they want to go to college or take a vocational track and learn a trade. And while I don’t want to shut students off so early to the possibility of going to college, trade skills are of such an important value to society that it makes me sad here that we still are under this paradigm that everybody should go to college to be valuable in a society.
- I do think free tuition a higher education institutions is not necessarily a right. I do think it is a privilege. A privilege that I think our country can afford. And I think free tuition allows university to maintain higher levels of academic rigor. Currently universities don’t want you to fail people, pushes you to graduate students to keep numbers higher, to make it look like your program or universities has a high graduation rate, all because it brings in more students and brings in more funding. So I think free or lower cost tuitions gives more institutions freedom to keep standards high and thus those that do graduate are of a higher quality.
Of course there are even more secondary positive impacts. More informed voters should lead to more responsible politicians, and less government waste. The last episode of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was an excellent example how making the decision to eliminate lead from homes would actually be a benefit instead of a cost in the long run. We need voters who not only understand issues but understand economics well enough to realize good investments from bad. Then there is also the stimulation to the economy as many more graduates who would no longer be burdened by massive student loan debt would be able to spend more.
People complain about the idea of free tuition, often because they say they don’t want to pay for someone else’s education. But you already pay a lot more for people’s ignorance. You pay a lot more because our generation of college graduates are deeply in debt and can’t spend money. You pay a lot when our best and brightest can’t go to college and only our richest can. You pay a lot more when someone remains in poverty instead of being able to get out of it through a college degree.
Whether you feel like tuition should be free or not, the problem remains. Students are in massive debt. College tuition prices have increased faster than wages, and we are no longer able to give an equal opportunity to students who want to get college degrees. Something has to change.
14 thoughts on “Tuition Free”
I’ve thought a lot about whether tuition should be free or not. I have decided (not based on any empirical evidence) that it should cost enough that it is properly valued. I would say that in Canada the balance is about right where tuition is highly subsidized, it’s still expensive enough to be considered an investment, and affordable enough that the majority of people, through student loans, can attend.
It seems to me that considering university degrees are often not valued by employers, making it free would exacerbate the problem since it would further devalue a degree. I could see making post-secondary education free, if it was much more difficult to achieve academically. That would maintain the value while providing universal access.
As you mentioned, we already have public education, which was intended to educate the populace. High school should be more than enough to produce thoughtful people.
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So are you saying that in Europe where many countries have tuition free degrees that they are less valuable? I’d say that degrees here have become less valuable as tuition fees have risen faster in comparison to wages. Especially since many schools lower admission standards to rake in more tuition dollars. Free tuition doesn’t imply that standards become less at universities for admission or for getting a degree once admitted. There is no financial incentive anymore for that practice as attendance to your university will go back to the quality of student you can produce and not the quantity.
I hadn’t considered that universities might lower their standards in order to increase revenue. I would say that whatever leads to higher standards will ultimately benefit society. If that means free tuition, bring it on. I can’t imagine how it would be implemented, though. Top tier schools are going to want to remain top tier and pay their professors a premium, for example. How would their funding be provided?
Free tuition would only be at publicly funded universities. It doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be private colleges. I mean private schools still exist for K-12 even though there is free public education. But that doesn’t mean that the public education can’t be quality either. Harvard and Yale and the like will still have their name recognition and those that are rather wealthy or gifted would still attend such schools.
That makes sense.
Well, I guess we have it solved then. We’ll just wait for Bernie Sanders to get elected and we’re good to go…
Even then it won’t be that simple of course. I don’t think if Bernie Sander was elected, such a thing would happen given the political climate, but sometimes it takes somebody just putting out there, and trying to get it done to at least make it a topic of conversation.
And high school should be enough… Right now in the US it’s not.
That’s unfortunate, but it can’t be fixed by forcing everyone to go to university.
I certainly haven’t made that argument. In fact I mentioned that K-12 reform is necessary to make a free tuition in college system be more meaningful.
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Swarn, this article is so spot on, and very well written. You covered a lot of ground and highlighted the consequences, the cost to Americans, when education is not a priority, in particular, education that actually educates. When I graduated from high school, I was able to make a comfortable living. Not so, today. In the states, you’re lucky to make a comfortable living with a 4 year degree, or even a masters.
I was watching a program with financial adviser, Suze Orman on PBS (Public Broadcasting System). She was advising people with no college or with 4 year degrees (struggling to make ends meet) to not go back to college, because they would most likely be in worst financial shape afterwards. That’s the state this country is in today.
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Indeed…the cost of tuition has gotten to the point where it is of questionable investment at this point unless you go into one of only a few specific fields. That should not be the case, because that education has benefits but not to the tune of $50,000-100,000 debt at the age of 22.
Sorry for my delay here Swarn — have been quite busy.
This is an excellent post on a critical social issue; an issue that has been understated, understudied, and underfoot of America’s top 1% – 10% and their state/federal officials they “donate” to. They have good reasons to keep their own “status” and learned intelligence perpetually above undesirables or potential competitors. Should I get into their self and familial greed? You’ve made many excellent points Swarn. Bravo!
One of my favorite economist is Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz. Here’s a quick snippet of an excellent interview about America returning to debt-free higher education. I recommend the entire interview…
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No problem Professor! Sorry I have had time to watch the interview until now. So much yes on what Stiglitz is saying. In addition to the intellectual gains, the fact, as Stiglitz says such people just can’t spend and stimulate the economy, so the only reason I can see us not investing in higher education is that somebody must be getting really rich off it all, and it’s not the American people in general.
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Precisely Swarn. But what is just as astonishing is that the American plutarchy — the upper 10% — do not even realize that ‘GIVING’ (abundantly) is not only good for the soul, but even MORE SO for business… and into an economy that MUST sustain said business & economy for the 90% make up that market and if pushed to their limits, their bankruptcies… history shows how horrible civil revolts can be on the wealthy few. Duh, right? 😮
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