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Should College Be Free? Pros, Cons, and Alternatives

By Publisher
| Last Updated May 9, 2022

It's a question that might be more relevant today than ever before: Should college be free in America? Many people have very passionate opinions on the matter. Maybe you're one of them. But this question deserves a lot more than a simple yes or no answer. It deserves an open mind and a balanced exploration of the potential benefits, drawbacks, and alternatives.

After all, America's future is at stake. And nearly everyone agrees that education is one of the biggest factors that will determine the nation's fate going forward. So we have to get it right. Although some people might feel that the current system of higher education and vocational training is working well, many other people believe that it needs at least a little bit of improvement in one way or another.

College affordability is often among the top concerns. When the cost of attending college, university, or trade school is too high, a lot of students simply choose not to pursue a higher education. And that leaves many of them ill-equipped to find good employment, let alone attain the American dream. But high costs also leave some college graduates with levels of debt that hamper their abilities to attain at least a middle-class lifestyle.

So, should college be free? Is that even possible? Keep reading, and decide for yourself.

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First, a Few Basic Facts

The concept of publicly funded education goes all the way back to America's Founding Fathers. In 1785, John Adams wrote: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it."

And, believe it or not, there actually was a time in the nation's history when people could attend public colleges for free. The Morrill Act of 1862 enabled land-grant colleges to be created by states on federal lands so that higher education could become available to Americans in every social class. The aim was "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

In the early days, students could often attend public land-grant colleges without paying any tuition. That was possible because only a relatively small percentage of Americans actually attended college. But as enrollment grew over the years, so did the funding requirements in each state. And that led to public colleges eventually charging tuition and raising their fees as enrollment grew and state funding slowed.

Today, the cost of attending many public colleges is so high that a lot of students simply can't afford to go. As a result, far fewer students from lower-income families attend college than those from upper-income families. That is in spite of the fact that the federal government continues to supply financial aid to eligible students, including Pell Grants (which don't have to be repaid).

Here are some other important facts to keep in mind as you explore the question of whether or not college should be free:

  • In 2019, the total amount of student loan debt in America was estimated to be over $1.6 trillion (more than 20 percent higher than it was just four years earlier). And student loans are, by far, the most dominant type of financial aid. And according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 60 percent of students who completed undergraduate studies in the 2015-2016 school year had taken out at least one student loan.
  • According to the Lumina Foundation, more than $80 billion is spent each year by the federal government on post-secondary financial aid. And College Board statistics show that in the 2018-2019 school year, government spending represented over 60 percent of all student financial assistance in the higher education sector.
  • According to College Board, in the 2019-2020 school year, the maximum federal Pell Grant covered about 59 percent of the average cost of going to a public four-year college or university. Compare that to 1973 when a Pell Grant covered over 75 percent of the cost, according to the Lumina Foundation. So, what about two-year colleges? Is community college free if you get a Pell Grant? Well, it used to be. But the Lumina Foundation says that a Pell Grant only covered about 60 percent of the cost of attending community college in 2013.
  • The NCES found that close to 17 million students were enrolled in American post-secondary schools in the fall of 2017, which was 3.6 million more than in 2000. Roughly six million of those students attended two-year colleges.
  • According to NCES estimates from 2017, young adults in America earn 62 percent more if they have a bachelor's degree than if they only complete high school.
  • The project reports that since the mid-1900s, America's top one percent of income earners have increased their portion of the country's income by more than double.
  • If you don't account for grants and scholarships, then, in total, about $254 billion is spent on college tuition each year by post-secondary students (based on calculations using data for the 2017-2018 academic period). That number comes from the NCES and is for all types of post-secondary institutions. Tuition at public colleges and universities accounts for nearly $103.5 billion of that total.
  • A few tuition-free colleges already exist in the U.S. (A tuition-free college is a post-secondary institution that doesn't charge tuition to its students but still may charge other fees, including room and board.) For example, Alice Lloyd College, Berea College, College of the Ozarks, Deep Springs College, Warren Wilson College, and Webb Institute offer free tuition. However, you may have to meet certain conditions, such as being a resident of a particular region, working on campus, attending full-time, or coming from a low-income family.
  • The past decade has seen the creation and proliferation of free online courses through non-profit organizations and massive open online course (MOOC) providers like Coursera. However, there are often limitations, including how much of a subject is available to study, what types of certifications may be awarded, and if there is a fee to access the provider's services (while the course may be free, you may need to pay for exams or other parts of course access).
  • Free college is something you can take advantage of by attending the United States Military Academy, Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, or Coast Guard Academy. Just keep in mind that each of the military academies is highly selective, so admission is very competitive. You also have to agree to serve as an officer in the service you've chosen for several years after graduation.

Why Should College Be Free for Everyone?

Proponents of free college believe that it would benefit the entire nation, not just the individual students who take advantage of it. They see it as both a private and public benefit. After all, more and more of today's jobs are knowledge-based or require advanced technical skills. So a better-educated workforce would help fill many of the skills gaps that prevent America's economy from growing faster.

Plus, since more people would be able to attain employer-desired credentials, more people would be able to take the good-paying jobs that often go unfilled. And that could result in billions of additional dollars circulating throughout the economy since people tend to spend more money when they have higher incomes and little or no debt. It could also mean that the government would take in a lot of extra tax revenues, which could go a long way toward paying for free public colleges.

But the issue of why college should be free isn't just an economic one. It's also a moral and philosophical one. Do we want every American, regardless of social standing, to have an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential? That's what this country is supposed to be about, yet social mobility has been eroding for the poor and middle class. And without easy and affordable access to quality higher education for everyone, the collective intelligence and goodwill of the nation could also erode. America might become even more socially divided.

Ultimately, many people believe that a college-level education should be an absolute right, so long as you have the ability to benefit from it. Put another way, perhaps free education is a concept that shouldn't be arbitrarily limited to K-12 students. Here are some of the other commonly cited reasons why college should be free:

Why Should College Be Free for Everyone?
  • There might be a lot fewer Americans who need to seek other forms of public assistance.
  • People would have more freedom to contribute their talents, try new ideas, and pursue the lives they want if they didn't have to start off in debt or stay stuck in a low-wage job. That could lead to happier people. And happier people could lead to a happier, more prosperous nation as a whole.
  • A better-educated population could result in smarter decision-making at every level of society, which could lead to faster progress in solving our most difficult, collective challenges.
  • Students would be able to focus more on their studies rather than worrying about how to scrape together enough funds for each upcoming school term. As a result, more of them might graduate on time, ready to take on important jobs in their communities.
  • Many of America's top-performing high school students never apply to the most challenging colleges and universities even though they have the ability to succeed at them. They often come from minority and low-income households and end up pursuing more affordable, less-selective schools instead. And that helps create a widening gap between wealthier families and those that are less affluent.
  • Although it benefits many students, the nation's existing financial aid system currently fails to provide an equal opportunity to every qualified American.
  • Graduating with high amounts of student loan debt has been shown to reduce a person's chances of owning a home, getting married, having children, and accumulating wealth.

How Might the Government Pay for Free Public College?

Technically, free college isn't really free. Someone does have to pay for it. In the case of public college, that means taxpayers. But some economists believe that every American who wants to could go to college for free if the federal and state governments made a few reasonable changes. They don't see the concept as a fantasy. They see it as a very realistic option. Some of the ideas that they've put forward include:

  • Closing corporate tax loopholes that allow companies to legally avoid paying their full share of taxes
  • Increasing the tax rates for America's wealthiest millionaires and billionaires
  • Implementing new taxes on speculative Wall Street transactions
  • Diverting most of the public money currently spent on student financial aid toward making all public colleges and universities tuition-free instead
  • Decreasing the military budget
  • Cracking down on wasteful government spending

If you only count the money doled out in federal grants, it costs about $2.8 billion each year to make college tuition-free (or close to free) for over 585,000 low-income students at public colleges and universities in the U.S. (based on data from the NCES for the 2016-2017 school year). However, grants alone are often not enough to cover all of a student's fees and expenses. So the federal government also offers work-study programs as well as subsidized and unsubsidized student loans, which can sometimes be difficult to repay.

Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont and a 2020 presidential candidate, has put forward a proposal to make college free. Under the proposed plan, it would cost $2.2 trillion (spread over 10 years) to eliminate tuition at public universities, colleges, and trade schools and cancel all outstanding student loan debt. However, the plan would only cover tuition and fees, not books, room and board, or other expenses. If his plan ever gets enacted, Sanders will pay for free college by passing a separate bill that taxes speculative Wall Street sales transactions. Other 2020 presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris also proposed various plans for free tuition at public colleges (for at least some students) and/or some kind of debt relief for students.

NCES data shows that during the 2017-2018 academic year, the average cost of attending an undergraduate post-secondary institution in the U.S. was $23,835. That number includes tuition, fees, and room and board. More than 20 million students were enrolled at all types of post-secondary schools (both public and private). So it would cost at least $480 billion each year to pay for free college for all undergraduate students, regardless of the institutions they attended.

But nobody is really proposing to make college free for everyone. Those who choose to attend private colleges or universities are generally left out of this discussion. Most proposals only focus on covering tuition for students at public schools of higher education. And getting free college tuition means that you don't have to pay for your courses, but you do have to pay for your other educational and living expenses.

Does Free College Work Well in Other Countries?

The answer appears to be yes. But that might depend on whom you ask. So where is college free in other parts of the world?

As of the 2017-2018 school year, at least seven countries offer tuition-free public higher education (at the bachelor's and master's degree levels). For example, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, and Sweden have free college education. So free college, in Europe especially, has proven to be a popular idea.

One reason why is that countries with free college education tend to have lower levels of student debt among their graduates. For example, according to the European Expert Network on Economics of Education (EENEE), in Finland, the average college student loan amounts to $1,200, which is used mostly for living expenses while in school. In Norway, the average student loan is worth $9,381. But that is still less than the U.S. average, which is $15,510.

Plus, another compelling fact about free colleges in Europe is that those nations don't generally spend that much more on higher education than the U.S. does. For instance, the EENEE reports that as a share of national GDP, the U.S. spends about 1.36 percent on post-secondary education. But Finland and Norway only spend 2.08 percent and 1.96 percent of their nations' GDP, respectively.

But here's something you may not know: Public college education is not free in the UK, although it used to be. As of 1998, public university is not free in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. That's because providing free public university was actually shown to reduce the quality of higher education and lessen access to educational opportunities for lower income students due to necessary caps on enrollment. So, in many ways, it did the opposite of what was intended, according to the Brookings Institute. Free higher education is not a concept that works everywhere.

Instead, the UK now has a system in which public universities charge tuition, but students don't have to pay anything up front. Payment is deferred until after graduation, and every graduate is automatically enrolled in an income-based repayment program. So graduates only have to pay an affordable percentage of their incomes once they start earning above a certain threshold.

College is not free in Canada. However, college and university students in Canada tend to pay less for their education than students in the U.S. since public post-secondary schools are heavily subsidized by the provincial, territorial, and federal governments. So the tuition is often lower. But many Canadian students still take out loans. In fact, according to EENEE data, the average student loan in Canada is worth $4,421, which is still far below the American average.

Could Free Public College Work Well in America?

Should College be Free?That's obviously up for debate. But many of the nation's leaders believe that it could. Free college—more specifically, free community college—is something that many progressive politicians have proposed. Yet, so far at least, the idea has not gained enough traction at the federal level. However, several states have already implemented free community college programs or similar ideas.

An article by the Pew Charitable Trusts states that Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee offer free college tuition to at least some students who attend public post-secondary institutions. (In some of these states, there are restrictions on who is eligible and/or specific requirements or conditions that have to be met by prospective students.) New York was the first state to make public college and university tuition-free for residents who come from families that earn $125,000 or less per year. Several other states are considering similar kinds of legislation. So free public college might not be such a radical idea.

Plus, other programs around the country are demonstrating that providing people with free college can be very beneficial. For example, consider the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan, which has been in effect since 2006. Essentially, all students who have been continuously enrolled in the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) district since kindergarten—and successfully graduate from high school—are eligible to have 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered (at the undergraduate level) at any public college or university in Michigan that accepts them.

The Kalamazoo Promise also covers high school graduates who have been continuously enrolled in the KPS district for shorter amounts of time. In those cases, students can have 65 percent or more of their tuition and fees covered, depending on how long they've been enrolled. And students are given up to 10 years to use the scholarship after graduating from high school.

The impact has been positive. According to one report, from 2006 to 2013, the percentage of KPS graduates who earned a college-level credential within six years of completing high school rose from roughly 36 percent to about 48 percent. And the impact has been the greatest on the district's low-income students who have increased their probability of attending and completing a four-year college education by over 50 percent.

Why College Should Not Be Free for Everybody

Opponents of free college tend to believe that such an idea would simply be too expensive for the federal and state governments to maintain long-term. As a result, Americans may have to start paying much higher taxes. And that, they say, could hurt the economy since people might have less to spend or invest.

In addition, countries like the U.S., Canada, South Korea, and Japan have already proven that free higher education isn't necessary for building some of the world's most educated workforces. And free public college, by itself, would likely not be enough to promote the big improvements in social mobility that are needed throughout America. That's especially true when you consider the responsibilities of adult and non-traditional learners who often have challenges that aren't just strictly financial in nature.

Many opponents of free college are especially against the idea of making community colleges tuition-free. They point to national statistics indicating that public community colleges are often dead ends for students. For example, only about 25 percent of first-time, full-time students at public two-year colleges earn associate degrees, diplomas, or certificates within three years of starting. And only 16 percent of them go on to earn bachelor's degrees within six years. (In contrast, 62 percent of students at private, non-profit two-year schools—and 61 percent of students at private, for-profit two-year schools—graduate within three years.) Those numbers come from the NCES.

So making community colleges free could have some negative consequences for non-traditional students who often benefit from attending private colleges or vocational schools. If the U.S. government diverts more funding toward making community colleges tuition-free, then students attending private schools could potentially lose access to federal financial aid since that might be one of the trade-offs. They would then need to decide whether to attend free public schools that may be a lot more crowded or provide less effective (and less convenient) training.

Here are a few other reasons why some people oppose free college for everyone:

  • With more people choosing to attend public colleges because of their tuition-free status, many schools might have to create wait lists or expand the ones they already have. State budgets could become strained, which might lead to cuts and decreased access to the programs that students want to take.
  • Public colleges and universities might become less worried about wasteful spending since they won't have to compete with other schools on cost. And that could strain public budgets even further.
  • Many students would still have to borrow money for their living expenses as well as for books and supplies. So they wouldn't get to leave school completely debt-free.
  • Students might take their college education less seriously if they don't have to pay for it. So graduation numbers might drop, or the people who do graduate might not be as well prepared for the workforce.
  • Students may not learn to become as financially literate or independent as they should be, choosing instead to stay dependent on government programs whenever possible.
  • If a lot more people are able to earn college degrees, then the value of those degrees could decrease. And that could lead to a rising number of workers who are underemployed based on their qualifications.

Are There Better Alternatives?

Maybe some kind of middle ground exists. Maybe making public colleges free for everyone isn't the best way to solve the affordability problem. At least, that's what some people believe. They point out that other options have been shown to work well and that those options might be a lot less expensive for American taxpayers.

For example, consider the possibility of an income-based repayment system. For some former college students in the U.S., that is already a reality. They are able to have the repayment of their student loans tied to a small percentage of their incomes. And if they earn below a certain threshold, then they don't have to make any payments. After 20 to 25 years, whatever is left on their loans is written off, as long as they have consistently kept up with all of the payments that were due. The problem, currently, is that this option is only available to low-income people who can prove that they are experiencing financial hardship.

But what if loans with income-based repayment were available to every student? You would be able to attend college, university, or trade school without having to pay for tuition while enrolled. Then, after you left school, you would only have to pay an affordable percentage of what you earned (or, if you didn't earn much, pay nothing at all until your income rose). The more money you earned, the quicker you would pay off the loan. And if your income stayed low, you would have the peace of mind of knowing that your loan obligations would eventually expire.

That's exactly the type of system that Australia uses through its Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). Plus, no interest is applied to the program's student loans. And for those earning incomes above a reasonable threshold, the repayment percentage ranges from only four to eight percent, which is very affordable. On average, it takes just over eight years for an Australian graduate to repay a HELP loan. Of course, many loans will never be fully repaid (roughly 17 percent of them). But the system has been designed to allow for that.

With a system like HELP, college graduates have the freedom to take on lower-paying jobs while they get established. And it provides an incentive for aspiring artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and other visionaries to pursue an education and develop their talents without worrying about the costs. After all, the world needs such people. Our future would be bleak without them.

So an income-based repayment system represents a compromise. Certainly, taxpayers would still have to help fund it since not all loans would be repaid. But the tax requirements would likely be much lower compared to what a tuition-free system would require. And such a system would also put some of the onus back on students. It would remove important obstacles to higher education without removing accountability or a sense of ownership.

Other ideas and alternatives to free public college that have been put forward by various people include:

  • Greatly expanding the existing Pell Grant program while cutting back on student loans
  • Investing in a better system of youth-development and community-development programs
  • Discouraging the distribution of merit-based financial aid to wealthy students and using that money to provide more opportunities for poor and middle-class students instead
  • Developing a larger and more robust apprenticeship system for skilled trades training and other vocational areas
  • Establishing better incentives for employers to provide more extensive on-the-job training rather than depending on the higher education system to supply fully qualified workers
  • Providing more incentives to colleges, universities, and trade schools to lower their costs and keep them low
  • Establishing a more extensive system of national service that enables young adults or career-changing adults to learn new skills, become part of something bigger than themselves, and network with other people while helping to solve some of the biggest challenges in the nation's communities—all in exchange for discounted or tuition-free college
  • Investing in better pre-college education that teaches students, in greater detail, about all of the realistic options that are available to them
  • Investing in better financial education for everyone so that all students become financially literate and know how to make money work for them before attending college or getting their first jobs
  • Providing more public support, including research and development funding, to innovators who are creating online, low-cost, and customized alternatives to traditional institutions of higher education

What's the Best Way Forward for Students Right Now?

Like other students, you might have a lot of options available to you. But the longer you wait to begin your post-secondary education, the more opportunities you may be missing out on. So even though "Should college be free?" is a question worth debating, the best action to take right now is probably to investigate the many helpful possibilities that already exist.

Why not check out some of the career-driven programs in your area just to see how you might benefit from them? Generate a list of nearby schools right now by putting your zip code into the following search tool!