Both Sides Now: Tuition-Free College Education  

Blue and red thought bubble piecing together.December 15, 2018 –

Is a college education worth the investment? According to new wage information, it definitively is: the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year. People with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more an hour on average than people without them. Fortunately, the U.S. has one of the best systems of higher education in the world. There are over 5,000 institutions across the country, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities to vocational schools.

Even so, the cost of a college education saddles many people with unmanageable debt and forces others to drop out entirely. Enter the idea of universal tuition-free college education.

Is free college an obvious way to advance our economy, or an unreasonable burden on taxpayers? Let’s take a look at both sides:

Federal or state government should provide students with a free college education.

Proponents of the idea say that a free college education program is both a private and public benefit, one that would create a larger, better-educated workforce, and ultimately advance the nation as a whole.

The idea comes most notably from former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, but he’s not the only enthusiast. Some states, such as Tennessee, Oregon, New York, and California, have already enacted measures to provide for free or reduced college tuition, though some include an income test.

Supporters cite evidence that college graduates earn significantly more than those with only a high school education. The benefits don’t end there — college graduates on average are in better health and have higher rates of civic engagement than people with less education.

Many people in the free college camp go even further, saying access to higher education is a fundamental right, and that we shouldn’t let financial burdens hinder the success of our citizens.

Government should not be responsible for funding college for all students.

“Yes, free higher education sounds like a good idea in theory, but is anything truly free?” asks Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in The Wall Street Journal. He notes the hard reality: free education would have to be paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Critics also say that free college creates poor incentives for students. Data on community colleges reveals that slightly more than a quarter of students graduate, while nearly half drop out, and shows that the less students pay, the more likely they are to quit. Some tax dollars would fund college degrees that help Americans climb the economic ladder, but many more would simply be wasted on students who never graduate.

Further, tuition isn’t the only barrier keeping students from obtaining college degrees. Many are simply not adequately prepared by the K-12 system to manage higher level work. Others are unable to pay for necessities like books, supplies, housing, and transportation, which makes them more likely to become part of the drop-out statistic.

Finally, there is the notion that some benefits, including college tuition, need to be earned. The GI bill provides tuition benefits to service members, veterans, and family members. AmeriCorps workers also receive tuition benefits. After years of tying tuition benefits to some form of national service, is it fair to give them away for free?

Polling shows that more than half of Americans support the idea of free college education. It will be interesting to see if candidates choose to run on this idea again in 2020, and how public support for it might change as more is known about the cost.

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This article originally appeared in the December 15, 2018 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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