Right Side: Should College be Free?

In Addition to a More Substantive Effort by States to Provide a College Education for Those Who Can’t Afford It, What is Deemed an Accredited College Must Change



I’ve changed.

I once believed … actually, let me rephrase that; I often spoke publicly with the aid of a microphone about the sanctity of the free market. I railed against the federal government meddling financially in services that weren’t a blip on the constitutional radar. I fancied myself a true, down-the-line believer of the conservative principles of limited government. Yet current national healthcare and childcare issues swiveled my head. The growing gap between haves and have-nots have accelerated the turn. These things will not be solved by the free market, despite the assurances of those who ride in limousines to their television interviews.  

Before you brand me a turncoat (if this was social media the keyboard cowards would have already typed, “snowflake”), I’ve changed my thinking on the above mentioned issues because I don’t see a more effective method than governmental intervention. I cannot say the same for the purpose of this article, which is whether we should hand out free college tuition coupons at high school graduations.

“We should provide every American with a free college education!”  —Bernie Sanders

Ah yes, it was a line that made the crowd cheer with the exuberance and frenzy of 14-year-olds lined up to see Bieber. But agreeing to this premise is like waking up after an evening at the tattoo parlor: “Oh my, what did I do?”

Let’s state the problem, then the bad solution.

Problem: Too expensive.

Bad solution: Make it free for everyone, therefore making taxes more expensive, and not getting the glorious results expected.

Offering college for free is rooted in the idea that since not everyone can afford a college education, we should address the issue with massive federal government spending, also known as massive personal spending through taxes. This argument does have the support of some nagging numbers: $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, approximately $33,000 in average individual debt and a 37 percent increase in four-year public college tuition over the past 10 years, which far outpaces the rise of medical costs. College is really, really mind-bogglingly expensive.

But arguing that making it free will automatically produce a more educated, therefore more productive, prepared, higher taxpaying workforce betrays fact. Only about 20 percent of first-time, full-time students at public two-year colleges earn associate degrees, diplomas or certificates within three years of starting. In California, before they made community college free to all incoming freshmen, only 10 percent graduated within six years, and half of that population was already going for free! The assumption that making something free will dictate personal drive and discipline is ignorant of the obesity problem in this country, since food choice and exercise is free. Lack of will power will supersede incentive.

But the fact remains that in this country employers value a college education. The unemployment rate in spring 2017 for those with a bachelor’s degree or more was 2.5 percent. If your name is Spicoli, and you have only a high school education, it’s 5.3 percent. Also, college graduates earn 60 percent more over their working years. And let’s not even get in to all the fun that happens at the Delta house.

There’s no denying that having a college education is a huge employment and financial benefit that is mostly allotted to those of certain financial means. Yes, there are income-based scholarships and grants, but the government’s maximum Pell Grants currently cover only 60 percent of tuition. For lower income students in our country, not being afforded the chance to go to college exacerbates the current income/potential gap. The mantra in our communities is that we must “climb the ladder of success.” Unfortunately, those first few rungs are quite a bit higher for some.

So, what to do.

Making college free, for everyone, is like taking an elephant gun to a mouse. Studies show the results are not enough to warrant the tax. There’s also the psychological aspect of providing something for free. Additional studies have also shown that students will not apply value to a free endeavor as they would one with cost, therefore limiting returns.

Several states have addressed the issue by expanding aid that is income-based, which we already do with a number of services. Why would a college education be different? If there is a student who comes from a home with no or limited means to pay for college, yet the student has proven with grades and desire that they are worthy of a chance, why should they be denied due to their parents’ situation? This would seem to not only go against our pledge to education but also that of our Founders. 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.”

I believe in meritocracy. It propels those with dreams and drive. But in our current college and employment system, want alone is not enough. The success stories are outliers. Access (not results) must be widened. In addition to a more substantive effort by states to provide a college education for those who can’t afford it (and no, that doesn’t mean they have to do community or military service!), what is deemed an accredited college must change. The antiquated, money-grabbing idea that students can only get a four-year college education by physically being in a classroom, day after day after day, in this age, is just stupid. Never before in the history of bipeds has there been so much learning available to so many people. What’s the line? “When I was a kid they called them libraries. Now they’re called Google.” Flexibility in furthering one’s education, one that is recognized by states and employers, is long overdue. While there are a number of online degrees available, let’s be honest, it’s like comparing the NFL to arena football. Once that changes, and education catches up with technology, we can limit attendance to Bernie rallies, and I can stop leading off articles with disclaimers.

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