Most people can agree that a college education should be accessible and affordable for anyone who wishes to have one. Due to what many consider an educational crisis related to rising costs, there have been calls for free college tuition. The idea of free tuition would involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars to send millions of new students to public colleges and universities. Implementing free tuition to make sure everyone gets a free ride would not guarantee graduation, nor a successful career, it would only increase the number of students enrolling. Free tuition would not only devalue higher education in America, but it would also remove an important incentive for students to graduate. While very popular, the concept of free tuition would have negative consequences that would far outweigh any benefits.
On the surface, it seems as though free college education would inevitably improve this country. One of the main arguments for free college is that by investing in marketable skills, through higher education, individuals can increase their productivity. Therefore, removing tuition costs would allow everyone to substantially invest in his or her own marketable skills. By creating a better-educated workforce, overall productivity would increase and thereby promote social and economic growth.
However, if more students start enrolling in college because it is free, the costs to cover all those tuitions would escalate. Unless more taxpayers’ money is spent, the quality of higher education would suffer. This could end up decreasing access to good quality higher education rather than increasing it.Additionally, America’s system of higher education is one of the best in the world simply because the competition between colleges, whether public or private, forces them to improve. Essentially, the cost-free concept that has weakened public high schools would erode America\’s higher education. If we examine the issue of public vs. private high schools in America, a gap in quality education can be observed clearly.
Since public schools are guaranteed a certain level of revenue, they do not need to compete for students and therefore are not effectively motivated to improve. The government has been footing the bill for public schooling for years and students do not seem to be any better for it. In fact, inequities just seem to increase while education quality continues to decline. According to the latest assessment from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) students attending private schools perform consistently better that those attending public schools. By establishing free tuition, public universities would lose the competitive edge that incentivizes them to improve.
The value of public degrees would significantly decrease, and private colleges would begin to excel in comparison. This gap in quality would allow private universities to increase their tuition, since their enrollment would be in higher demand. A truly advanced education would be less available to the middle and lower class, creating an elitist system, the very thing proponents of free college are trying to avoid. Another issue that needs to be considered is the high dropout rates in public colleges and universities. According to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) only about 59% of students attending a public four-year university graduates with in 6 years of enrollment. In a typical two-year college, the graduation rate is even lower, only 24% of first-time, full-time students graduate within three years.
While offering free tuition would inevitably increase the number of students enrolling in public colleges and universities there is no guarantee that those new students would eventually graduate. Spending billions of dollars funding free tuition is, at best, a risky public investment. According to Richard Vedder, Professor of Economics at Ohio University, raising taxes to private individuals lowers economic growth because “the output reduction associated with higher taxes on highly efficient and market directed competitive private sector is far greater than any positive effects of more education administered by less efficient and market disciplined higher education providers”(Vedder).
Essentially, the economic contributions of the private sector would be negatively affected if taxpayers are forced to fund the education of thousands, possibly millions, of new students that may or may not actually graduate.
Importantly, free tuition could potentially weaken students’ commitments, since the financial incentive to finish a degree will be removed. The results of a recent experiment conducted by Benjamin Marx, professor of economics at University of Illinois and Leslie Turner, professor of economics at University of Maryland, demonstrated that students who have the financial responsibility of their tuition tend to perform better than those who do not. Students who borrowed earned 3.7 additional credits and raised their GPAs by more than half a grade on a four-point scale. One year after the intervention, those same students were 11% more likely to have transferred to a four-year public institution, they also signed up for more classes and progressed further in school compared to students in the control group. They attempted 2.5 credits more than students in the control group, on average, and earned 3.7 credits more during the 2015-16 academic year. The results suggested that offering loans can help more students succeed in school (Marx, Turner). If there were no personal cost to students, it would be easier for them to walk away from a program or course than if they were to pay for it.
Making higher education more affordable and accessible is an undeniable necessity. A student should never be denied access to higher education due to his or her socioeconomic status. Government policy should aim to increase financial aid programs that help the poorest of eligible candidates. Additionally, there needs to be a better system of student loans that does not prey on vulnerable students. While almost everyone can all agree to the importance of a higher education in America, stablishing free tuition would not only diminish the quality of America\’s higher education, potentially lower economic growth, and remove an important incentive that encourages students to graduate. Instead of blindly joining the free college cause, policymakers should look at ideas that would serve those students that need help the most.