The cost of college education in the United States has been on the rise in the past two decades. Many students are finding it hard to graduate because of financial constraints, even though the government offers financial support. Many learners avoid the trap of leaving school with huge debts that might take them many years to clear. This issue has been debated in various sectors, with proponents and opponents presenting different arguments for either supporting or opposing it. Proponents believe that free education will strengthen the labor market, grow the economy, and increase equality in society. On the contrary, opponents argue that it will devalue the college degree and overburden the taxpayers, as well as the federal and state governments. Countries that offer free tertiary education report both positive and negative impacts. Arguments from both sides originate from the results of surveys conducted on the positive and negative effects of free college education in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. College education should be free because it will widen the workforce, boost the economy, decrease inequality, and allow students to focus more on their careers.
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Why College Education Should Free
Widening of the Workforce
Providing free education for everyone in America will widen the workforce by increasing the number of qualified people in the labor market. Technological advancement has introduced the concept of automation in many jobs that involve simple tasks. However, there is a need for more qualified individuals with analytical and creative thinking skills to do the work that machines cannot do (Winograd and Lubin). A free college education would create a large pool of graduates with technical skills; this would broaden the labor force and increase its agility. Moreover, availability of qualified candidates would make it easier for industries to recruit, hire, train, and retain highly-qualified individuals with a wide range of capabilities (Kromydas 4). The majority of jobs in contemporary society require advanced technical skills that can only be acquired in college (Goger). In that regard, free college education would create a better-educated workforce that would fill the numerous positions that are available in the various economic sectors.
Another reason why college education should be free is the role it would play in boosting the economy. Government statistics have shown that students graduate with an average debt of $31,172 that takes several years to repay fully (Winograd and Lubin). Moreover, the interest that accrues on their education loans makes it harder for them to focus on other life aspects such as starting a family or buying a house. Free education would allow students to graduate without debt, and therefore, enhance their readiness to earn, save, and invest (Winograd and Lubin). The economy would benefit immensely if the money that people use to repay their student debts went toward investments or starting businesses. In addition, instead of paying for their children’s college education, parents could use that money to invest in their retirement or the stock market. Either way, college for all would provide a financial incentive that would save a lot of money. Habits such as consumer spending and investing are key in the stimulation of economic growth (Winograd and Lubin). Many students are afraid of leaving school with huge debts, and so, they avoid going to college altogether. Decreased graduation rates lower the number of professionals available to fill the vacancies that are available in various industries.
Inequality in the education sector is a pervasive challenge that could be solved by the introduction of free college education for all. Students from low-income families find it difficult to afford tertiary education because it is expensive (Financial Stress). In that regard, equal opportunities are unavailable for young people to pursue careers of their choice. There are many bright individuals who fail to make their contribution to society because of the lack of money to go to school. A lack of education is associated with low wages and a below-average lifestyle (Kromydas 6). States that have free college tuition programs record positive outcomes: inequality has declined significantly and the rates of graduation have increased (Winograd and Lubin). The Tennessee Promise scholarship program increased college enrolment by 24.7%; the admission of African American and Hispanic students rose by 5% and 1% respectively (Winograd and Lubin). The graduation rate in the program was 52.6%, while that of students who finance their education was 38.9% (Winograd and Lubin). The rates of graduation among students who attend college on scholarship are higher than those of students who pay for it.
Increased Focus on Studies and Careers
Proponents of free college education argue that it is necessary because it will allow students to focus on their education and careers, rather than looking for tuition money. Some of the main causes of stress among college students include the high cost of education, the means of repaying their loans, challenging academic work, relationships, and securing employment after school (Financial Stress). Research has shown that financial constraints cause worry, anxiety, and even depression among students. The sustained stress of thinking about how to pay for tuition and the burgeoning debts after graduation diverts their focus from their education to the search for money (Financial Stress). These challenges crowd their brain’s ability to focus on coursework and their long-term professional goals. As a result, the rates of graduation decline immensely as many of the students drop out for lack of money.
A 2015 study conducted by the Ohio State University on student wellness revealed that approximately 70% of students experience stress because of the poor state of their finances (Winograd and Lubin). Anxiety originates from thinking about ways to pay for their tuition and monthly expenses. Moreover, 32% of the students interviewed stated that at certain times, they had to abdicate their studies so that they could look for money to pay their debts (Winograd and Lubin). These challenges could be mitigated by a free college education for all.
Opponents of free college education argue that it is impracticable because it would devalue college education and overburden the taxpayers, as well as the state and federal governments. They have criticized the proponents for presenting arguments that though valid, have little basis in reality. For example, they support it and fail to give workable recommendations on how to get the money for the program without overburdening the state and federal governments. It would be inappropriate to increase taxes so as to earn money to fund a free education program. Moreover, they ignore how it would affect the value of a college degree.
Increased Pressure on Governments and Taxpayers
One of the main arguments against free college for all is the financial pressure it would place on the federal and state governments, and taxpayers. Such a program would require the government to find extra money to finance it, taking into consideration the likely increase in enrolment. Free college education means that Americans would be required to pay more taxes for the government to get enough money to implement and sustain the program (DiMartino 261). Higher education is not a universal right but a private pursuit that is usually done in order to get an economic return (McCowan, 111). Therefore, the government does not a moral obligation to make it free for everyone. The uncertainty of who will be affected by the increases in tax is a source of discomfort and opposition among Americans who think that the idea is not viable (Goger). The most realistic option would be increasing and creating new taxes, thus burdening the taxpayers who are already paying taxes that are considered relatively high in comparison with other developed economies.
Devaluation of the College Degree
The value of a college degree would decline significantly if education was made free for all. Currently, many people rate a degree highly mainly because of the dedication and struggle involved in its attainment. The stress of financing one’s education through loans and taking multiple jobs makes it an invaluable pursuit (Goger). Free education may erode its quality because students would not feel then need to work hard as the government would pay for their tuition. Moreover, the majority of them would not be motivated to graduate quickly because of the lack of an urgency to reduce debt. Therefore, laziness and indifference to education would increase because of the elimination of the financial pressure of mounting student debt (Goger). This renders the idea of free college education for all a bad idea that should not be implemented. Moreover, free education would not solve the inequality that exists in the education system because of social and cultural factors (DiMartino 274). In that regard, free education would be beneficial to a small percentage of students who cannot pursue higher education because of financial constraints. This would exclude young people who do not go to college because of social and cultural factors.
The arguments that free education might devalue a college degree and put pressure on governments and taxpayers is highly flawed. First, free education would increase competition in the labor market because a higher number of graduates would compel organizations to raise their hiring and recruitment standards (Goger). Therefore, students would be more motivated than before to attain excellence in their education in order to increase the chances of pursing the careers of their choice. Moreover, there are many people who pursue alternative careers because of the lack of money to pay for tertiary education. It is highly unlikely that the program would devalue a college degree. This phenomenon has not been observed in countries that offer free college education, such as Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
Opponents also argue that free education would put pressure on state and federal governments, and taxpayers. This argument is based on the assumption that the only way for the federal government to finance the program is through raising taxes. However, there are other alternatives that can be applied.
It is estimated that even without this family income limitation, eliminating tuition for four years at all public colleges and universities for all students would cost taxpayers $79 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Consider, however, that the federal government spent $91 billion in 2016 on policies that subsidized college attendance. At least some of that could be used to help make public higher education institutions tuition-free in partnership with the states. (Winograd and Lubin)
The government could also reevaluate its spending in various sectors in favor of free education and enact more stringent policies that seal the loopholes that wealthy individuals and organizations use to avoid paying taxes.
Utopia and Free College Education
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Thomas More taught that in a utopian society, governments focus all resources on the provision of services that promote the safety and welfare of its citizens. Such civilizations are characterized by equality as everyone has access to opportunities for personal and professional advancement, and they are treated with dignity (More). Free college education can be viewed as one of the ways that the US can achieve a utopian society: it will promote public interests, accord people dignity, encourage individual development, and support the improvement of people’s welfare (McCowan 115). It would provide a way for people to live with dignity by eradicating ignorance, pursuing careers of their choice, and serving society.
College education should be free because it will widen the workforce, boost the economy, decrease inequality, and allow students to focus more on their careers. There are several downsides though: there is a possibility of devaluing the college degree and placing financial pressure on taxpayers and the state and federal governments. However, the impact on the education system, the economy, people’s lives, and the society at large outweigh the shortcomings. This conclusion has limitations; first, it is based on the assumption that skills can only be taught in college. Secondly, it disregards the importance of encouraging young people to venture into entrepreneurship as an alternative to formal education. Many successful entrepreneurs have reiterated on several occasions that they do not usually consider academic qualifications when hiring. Their main focus is on the individual’s creativity, thinking capability, and the potential to solve complex problems. It is important for Congress to support the provision of free college education by enacting laws that support it. Otherwise, the American economy might not be able to compete effectively with other developed nations that offer free education and that have a highly-qualified and academically diverse workforce.
DiMartino, Lauren A. “The “Free College” Illusion: How State Tuition Support Programs are Widening the Opportunity Gap.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty, Law, and Policy, vol. 25, no. 2, 2018, pp. 258-301.
“Financial Stress Prevents College Students from Graduating: What Can We Do?” Scholarship America, 2019.
Goger, Annelies. “Free College Won’t Be Enough to Prepare Americans for the Future of Work.” Brookings, 2019.
Kromydas, Theocharis. “Rethinking Higher Education and its Relationship with Social Inequalities: Past Knowledge, Present State, and Future Potential.” Palgrave Communications, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-12.
McCowan, Tristan. “Is There a Universal Right to Higher Education?” British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 60. No. 2, 2012, pp. 111-128.
More, Thomas. “Utopia.” The Project Gutenberg, 2000.
Winograd, Morley, and Max Lubin. “Tuition-Free College is Critical to Our Economy.” EdSource, 2020.