Should College Education Be Free?

Rising tuition prices at colleges and universities and the relentless growth in student debt in the U.S. have fueled calls for tuition-free college education.

Student debt stood at $1.4 trillion nationwide as of the fourth quarter of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Federal Reserve data show that more students are taking out loans and the average size of those loans is growing—and repayment rates have slowed.

Many states and cities offer students some help in covering college costs, notably New York state, which last year initiated a program allowing students in lower- and middle-class families who live in the state to enroll in its two-year and four-year public colleges tuition-free.

Advocates of a nationwide program of free colleges say that giving everyone access to higher education not only would help individuals succeed and contribute to society but also would produce a better-qualified workforce for the evolving economy. But critics of the idea point to the burden it would place on taxpayers and question whether the goal of graduating more people from college is worth the investment.

Sara Goldrick-Rab,

a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University, argues in favor of free college education.

Neal McCluskey,

director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, opposes the idea.

YES: Such an investment pays off in growth and innovation

By Sara Goldrick-Rab

Millions of Americans, from the poorest all the way to the upper middle class, struggle to pay for college.

Parents go into debt, their children go into debt, everyone works harder and longer. And yet a growing number don’t make it.

Even students from middle-class families are leaving college without a degree, often with loans they cannot repay. Some are experiencing hunger, even homelessness, and many are giving up on their ambitions and career plans because they simply can’t afford the education to get them there.

This is unnecessary, expensive and inefficient. America has a comprehensive infrastructure of colleges and universities. These institutions aren’t perfect, but they are capable of preparing people for success in a rapidly changing economy. The problem is America’s antiquated financial-aid system, which hasn’t been significantly changed in the past half-century.

It’s time for a new approach. America became great in part because it decided to offer elementary and secondary school to the masses, propelling innovation and economic growth. It simply needs to remember and reinvest in that smart decision, this time including public higher education.

States should aim for tuition-free funding models for everyone, supplemented by means-tested programs to ensure that all students have access to food, housing and the transportation they need to succeed. But states can’t do this on their own. We need a commitment from the federal government to provide whatever additional funding is necessary to make this work.

Of course the cost of tuition-free higher education will be borne by taxpayers. But this is the kind of investment Americans are familiar with—we all understand that public libraries are free, as are public roads and fire departments, and K-12 schools, and we share the cost of those public services. Higher education, like those, is an investment that would benefit us all. When people cannot afford education, we all suffer, as they are far less likely to be employed, paying taxes, sending their children to school and contributing to our communities in other ways.

Giving more people the opportunity to earn a college degree won’t produce an army of overqualified workers, as some argue. Employers today are demanding a college education because the nature of work has changed. They want workers with up-to-date technical expertise; habits of mind that include analytical thinking, problem solving and cooperative behavior; a strong work ethic and a commitment to lifelong learning.

This is a lot to ask, and it makes sense that while many 20th-century workers could acquire everything they needed in 12 years, these days it takes 13 years or more to learn all of this.

The idea that degrees are becoming less valuable is also mistaken. The breadth of people obtaining degrees has expanded—more people from low-income families, people of color and women are getting them. These people aren’t treated the same in the labor market as white men are—their wages tend to be lower. That doesn’t mean education is any less valuable. In fact, it means higher education is becoming less about exclusion and more about social mobility than ever before.

As for the threat that some people see to the excellence of U.S. higher education: “Excellent” institutions that are inaccessible are nothing but elitist.

It is perfectly possible to be both accessible and excellent. But if the goal is to greatly reduce the stock of educated labor in the U.S. and turn back the clock to a time when only the privileged got ahead in life, eliminating all government aid for higher education—as some suggest would be ideal—seems like a fine way to do that, but it wouldn’t be good for the country’s economic future.

Dr. Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University and author of “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.” She can be reached at [email protected]

NO: ‘Free’ comes with a high cost for students and the economy

By Neal McCluskey

It’s always nice to get something for nothing, and given astronomical college prices and the seemingly self-evident value of education, free college sounds unimpeachable. But nothing is truly free—indeed, the unintended costs can be crippling—and just because something is called “education” doesn’t mean you are learning very much.

“Free” would have to be paid for with tax dollars, and looking at colleges’ current tuition and fee revenue, and income directly from government, gives a rough sense of how much it would cost. Using the most recent federal data, it comes to roughly $339 billion annually, or about $1,360 for every adult in the United States. If you live to age 75, and pay that annually in taxes starting at age 18, that’s $77,500—not free at all.

And not fair. Why should people who want to go to college get it paid for in part by people who pursue on-the-job training or other forms of noncollege education? Indeed, why should anyone get a degree to increase their lifetime earnings on the backs of taxpayers?

This is not to defend the current pricing model. Government “aid” to make college more affordable has actually fueled the tuition skyrocket.

In the 2015-16 academic year, Washington delivered about $139.6 billion to students, up from $53.1 billion, adjusted for inflation, 20 years earlier. That has enabled colleges to raise their prices at breakneck rates, ironically creating hyperinflated prices most hurtful to the low-income people aid was supposed to help.

Perhaps more damaging than the financial cost, however, has been the upcredentialing created by massive subsidies, forcing many Americans to earn degrees just to stay in one place in the job market. Subsidies have encouraged more people to go to college, enabling employers to demand degrees even for jobs that haven’t changed, forcing more people to go to college, and so on. Free college through even greater government intervention would almost certainly intensify this vicious cycle.

This might be tolerable if additional credentials carried commensurate increases in useful knowledge and skills. They do not.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, literacy rates for people with bachelor’s and advanced degrees plummeted between 1992 and 2003 (the only years studied). Among those whose highest attainment was a bachelor’s degree, the share who hit prose proficiency dropped from 40% to 31%; for people with graduate studies, it fell from 51% to 41%. Little wonder: As reported in the book “Academically Adrift,” the hours full-time students spent studying or in class dropped from about 40 a week in the early 1960s to about 27 today.

The dearth of useful learning may be one reason that earnings for bachelor’s and advanced degree holders ages 25 to 34 dropped between 2000 and 2015.

There may be another major cost to “free.” Our long tradition of paying customers, private funding and autonomous institutions has made ours the premier college system. The United States is home to the majority of the world’s Nobel laureates, is the top destination for students studying outside of their home countries, and U.S. institutions predominate at the top of international rankings.

“Free” higher education would stultify this—eliminating the need for schools to compete for students to bring in revenue, and inevitably transferring decision-making from institutions to the government bureaucrats paying the bills.

A college education seems financially daunting, but making it free is not the answer. The key to quality, affordable education is to subsidize neither students nor schools, but have people pay with their own money, or money they are voluntarily given or lent, while leaving institutions free to establish their own prices, aid systems and rules. Then astronomical pricing and credentialism will wilt, without killing the dynamism that sets U.S. higher education apart.

Dr. McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He can be reached at [email protected]

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