- Calling something free doesn’t make it free. Nothing in life is free. It’s simply a matter of who pays the costs.
- If a college education has value, why give it away?
- If college becomes free for students, colleges will attract more young people who are not suited for college and more students will major in fields with little or no market value.
Anyone watching the higher education landscape these days can’t help but note the proliferation of articles calling for free tuition. President Obama’s January 2015 proposal to make the first two years of community college free spawned much of this discussion. While the proposal stalled, it did help to ignite a nationwide discussion.
Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran “Nobody Should Have to Pay to Go to College,” by Kenneth W. Warren and Samir Sonti. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an opinion piece by Stephanie Saul that advocated free tuition at Harvard to help fuel diversity. Political candidates are also entering the discussion. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have offered proposals for free college and debt-free college respectively.
So what are we to make of these proposals? Advocates claim the United States is simply not educating enough students to maintain our economy and standard of living. These advocates claim college costs and crushing student debt are leading to a shortage of skilled, educated talent, jeopardizing our economic future and making us unable to compete in a global marketplace. We need to make it easier for students to access a college education – or so the argument goes.
If you’re a young person, a college student or the parent of a soon-to-be college student, free tuition might sound like a great idea. The prominence of these proposals certainly warrants a closer look.
For starters, we should examine the assumptions underlying this proposal. Some elements of the current discussion defy logic. If something is valuable, shouldn’t we be willing to pay for it? So how can we say it has value, yet seek to give it away?
And what about the notion the United States does not have enough educated and skilled people to fill all the positions of the new economy? Some workforce analysts assert that by 2020 two in three jobs will require some higher education to perform. The solution, we’re told, is to get more people into school and produce more college graduates.
That makes sense to some, but I’d ask: Is more higher education the only way to get an educated and skilled workforce? Of course, if you’re talking about some jobs, that may be the answer. However, we also have labor shortages in fields such as computing, the skilled trades, auto mechanics and health care. Many jobs in these fields pay well, but don’t require a four-year degree.
Is there a shortage or merely a maldistribution of students? The sad fact is that for every student in business, engineering or a pre-professional program, there are others in less marketable areas such as art history, psychology and history majors. That’s nothing against those fields or those who choose to study in them. But we need to ask: Will our nation be better if we keep generating graduates who have difficulty finding gainful employment?
Our society values a college degree – maybe too much. Over the last two decades, we’ve funneled too many young people toward a four-year degree, when the truth is that many probably would have done better elsewhere.
College, unfortunately, has become a proxy for talent. However, the reality is a college education doesn’t always translate into social or economic mobility. We tend to overlook the other paths to success, such as starting your own business or becoming an apprentice. We tend to overlook the thousands of individuals who through their own ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination achieved the American dream without ever going to college.
Moreover, newer statistics undercut the idea college is a sure pathway to a good-paying job and prosperity. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for university grads are 2.5 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 2000. The research found that the real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages of recent college grads in 2015 was $17.94 or just over $37,000 a year. In 2000, the average hourly rate was $18.41.
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. The problem is not access but completion. Why do people drop out of college? For the most part, money is not the problem. It’s usually factors like family issues, or transportation.
The Obama program is targeted at community college students, a population where only 21 percent of students earn an associate’s degree within three years and only one in five earn an associate’s degree and go on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.
The upshot: Providing free tuition to institutions that graduate a little over 50 percent of their students does not make economic sense. It would likely attract more students that are ill-suited for the college environment who will end up dropping out anyway.
We will likely continue to argue about the value of a college degree. Even if we agree on all questions, any plan to make college tuition free faces significant practical challenges.
Again, let’s talk about the president’s proposal. The cost of the Obama proposal is approximately $6 billion a year – which seems a bit like a low-ball estimate, but that’s another discussion. Seventy-five percent of costs would be borne by the federal government; the states would pay the remainder, about $1.5 billion. You can be sure those costs would only grow. Where states would find the money is a good question.
With a budget deficit of $742 billion and $18 trillion in national debt, Americans should ask: Can we really afford to pay for another program that would in all likelihood quickly become another entitlement? Currently the United States provides billions in student need-based financial aid to eligible low- and middle-income students. The administration’s free college proposal would not only reduce the costs of education for many who already qualify for a free or lower-cost education, it would also provide free education for students whose families have the means to pay for part or all of a college education.
In part, working-class families will be forced to subsidize college degrees for rich kids.
There is more than one way to position America to be able to compete in a global economy. We must realize many of the problems we seek to redress in higher education are rooted in K-12 education. Substantive school reform and expanding school choice are two proven and less expensive efforts to address these concerns and improve the pool of quality graduates. States might improve this pool by rewarding programs that work. We could also incentivize corporations, such as CVS and UPS, that offer generous higher education benefits to employees of companies.
Unfortunately, the loudest voices in this conversation are advocates for free college tuition. That option can be accomplished in one of two ways. If private institutions, many of which have billion-dollar endowments, chose to provide a tuition-free education, it’s their prerogative to spend dollars as they see fit. However, if people want to provide a similar benefit at public universities, the federal government would be the only entity able to administer a free college program.
If we’re contemplating that thought, let’s remember two things. First, there is no mention of education or higher education in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the federal government from funding and exerting ever more control over K-12 and higher education.
Second, the expansion of federal control across all areas of society has fueled ever-rising costs and resulted in a loss of freedom for institutions and the individual. The track record of federal involvement in education is especially disappointing
Decades ago, the federal government’s interest in universities was limited to research. Then came the GI Bill, student aid and Title IX. The federal government‘s burgeoning role in research, student aid, diversity, health care and efforts to protect against discrimination has spawned an ever-growing bureaucracy of middle managers. These changes have added tremendously to the cost of higher education, reduced the ability of institutions to respond to changing conditions, and worked to homogenize colleges and universities that were once the envy of the world.
Let’s also remember that the one who pays the bill also calls the tune. Colleges and students lose freedom when the federal government intrudes into campus life.
Yes, free college tuition may sound like a dream to some. For most others, it’s a nightmare. Let’s remember, calling something free doesn’t make it free. Nothing in life is free. It’s simply a matter of who pays the costs. Free college tuition plans merely shift the costs of education from one group of taxpayers to all taxpayers. The proposals for free college are poorly targeted, too expensive, deliver too little and take away institutional and individual freedoms. It’s time to realize free college tuition is too expensive for North Carolina and our nation.
 The Class of 2015, Economic Policy Institute, available at: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-class-of-2015/#young-workers-are-not-%E2%80%9Criding-out%E2%80%9D-the-recession-by-%E2%80%9Csheltering-in-school
 Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort, published by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, November 2015, Available at: https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport10/