Free Education: Pros & Cons

Free Education: Pros & Cons

To be Free or not to be Free,

That is the American College System Question


The Need for a Solution

It was once thought that there were three basic skills one needed to perform in order to have even a marginal chance of succeeding, or at least providing for oneself as an adult; one had to be able to read, write, and demonstrate an aptitude for simple arithmetic. Partly as a result of this minimum educational standard in order to ease the potential burden on the state, primary school became mandatory for every child in the US. As time changed, so did this requirement. In the ‘80s it was believed that one needed at least a high school diploma if they were to have any chance of success. Now here we are; a new century and a new professional era. As many have found, graduating high school just doesn’t cut it anymore. If a person expects to make more than minimum wage, one needs to have completed, at the very least, an associate’s program or some sort of vocational school. However, the American government has not caught up to this educational need, and the cost of furthering your education beyond high school has left millions in debt to an average sum of $37,000 individually, and over $1 trillion collectively.

Here is the fundamental problem with the US college system: Politicians are in agreement that a college education is completely necessary today, with most college graduates making over one million dollars more over the course of their life than high school graduates. It seems as though the rest of the world’s powerhouse nations, as well as many poorer countries have gotten the message; virtually every nation in Western Europe with their exception of Britain and Ireland, Brazil, Panama, Uruguay, and Argentina in South America, Egypt, Morocco, and Kenya in Africa, and Turkey and Malaysia in Asia all offer free college tuition, with some even extending the offer to international students, regardless of whether they speak the language or not. Yet here we are, in the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world. Tuition costs are constantly on the rise, student debt is at an all time high, as is the rate of default, and it seems that all the politicians are doing is arguing without offering any solutions. Why haven’t we just switched to the European education mode? It’s a question many have asked without getting anywhere, but as it turns out, unlike most things in politics, the answer is not simply one party against the other. The free tuition question is a multilayered issue to which there is no simple answer.


Layer 1: Free College Tuition and the Economy

In 2017, NY governor, Andrew Cuomo signed a law that will make state colleges tuition free for students whose families have a combined household income of less than $125,000. Though we use the term “free tuition”, this does not mean that post-secondary education will come without a cost. To begin with, let’s look at the pinnacle of the European model, Sweden. Though college tuition in Sweden is free to citizens of both the country and the EU, more than 85% of students in Sweden graduate with some degree of debt (compared to the US where 50-70% of students graduate with debt). They also have the highest debt to post-university income ratio in the world. This basically means that when one graduates uni in Sweden, their income when they enter the workforce is not enough to cover both their living expenses and their college debt.

The reason for this is the “free tuition” itself. Like the US, Sweden has a free market economy, so what a person makes belongs to that person, not to the government. However, in order to afford free public services like college tuition, taxes in Sweden are well beyond what we pay in the US. This means that if a business owner is expected to pay 56.4% of their income (as of 2018) to the government in the form of taxes, they must raise the cost of their goods in order to meet the cost of living. But, as they raise the costs of their product, so must everyone else, giving Sweden one of the highest costs of living in the EU.

Now picture a college student in Sweden. Like 75% of the rest of the student population, in order to go to school they had to leave home and move to an urban hub like Stockholm. As far as the cost of an education goes, they only need to come up with enough to cover their books; as for the cost of living….well, this would be why the average student debt in Sweden is around $20,000 dollars, and once they receive their diploma, they too will be obligated to pay nearly 60% of their income in taxes, even if they are only making the US equivalent of $50,000 a year.

With that said, higher taxes in exchange for free college tuition is pretty much expected and the cause for the most disparity in the liberal vs. conservative opinion on the matter. Surprisingly though, the biggest economic impact will not come from taxes, but rather the colleges themselves.

Currently, colleges in the US can be split into two broadly defined categories: public and private. As this implies, on one side there are community colleges and state universities, while on the other side are the private institutions and maybe some trade schools, depending on the trade. The division comes in how much funding a university receives from the state and/or federal government. This is not to say that private colleges do not receive federal funding at all, but the majority of their assets come from tuition, donors, and the gross from simply doing business. On the other hand, state universities are just that; they get most, if not all of their funds from the government. As the tuition debate currently stands, it is agreed across the board that the only tuition the government would be able to cover is the cost of community college and the cost of state colleges.

Now imagine you were still a senior in highschool filling out your college applications. SUNY over in New York offers free tuition; half to be paid by the state and the other half to be paid by the school. The other school on your list is Columbia University, a private college that offers little in the way of tuition cuts. In this hypothetical world where state universities are free, Columbia wouldn’t even turn up as a blip on your radar, especially because the ivy-league pedigree is not as important as it once was. Maybe, if name is something you really value you will still go for Harvard or Yale, but recent polls suggest that the cost of tuition is more important to prospective students and families than the college itself. With that said, the US, Britain, Ireland, and Japan do not offer free college tuition. It has been more than suggested that this is due to these nations having the top rated private colleges in the world within their borders. The bottom line is the government wants you to go to private colleges, and incur debt because 7% of all student debt paid goes back to the government (in 2015 the US gov pocketed $11 billion off of student debt). Free tuition to many means no more debt. Though this is the aim, it also poses a problem for the economy.

Other opponents of free tuition, (usually those who work in education) point to another problem; they insist that private schools that depend entirely or almost entirely on the cost of tuition, will fall on hard times if public colleges are free. If the ratio of students in private colleges were to flip to those in public colleges (currently 65% of bachelors students are enrolled at private institutions), opponents propose that many institutions will have to close, putting thousands out of a job in every state across the country. If tuition costs were to decrease or disappear altogether, it would adversely affect the economy at a personal level (educator’s salaries/job security) and at a national level as the government will no longer be able to profit from debt.


Layer 2: The Worth of a College Education

In the eyes of the US government, a person with a 2 year degree is worth $50,000 more than a student with a HS diploma, while a person with a 4 year degree is worth $100,000 more, and a person with a postgraduate degree is worth $250,000 more. Basically, the federal government wants you to go to college. A person with a diploma will usually make more money based on how advanced their degree is. For the feds, this is the upside to free college tuition. If more people enroll in college, it is assumed that they will go on to make more money once they finish their education. To the folks in DC, the more you make, the more you pay back to the government.

Another point is the “worth” of the education. It is the American mindset that a higher tuition means a better education. It is not my intent to argue this point, but explain its basis. In the eyes of society, if you spend $200,00 or more on an education, you expect to make an income that will justify this investment. So, say for a moment, that you have graduated with two PhDs and intend to turn around and re-enter academia as a professor, your degree is worth something to the educational institution that will employ you As the acumen your degrees imply you possess means that you can provide that much more of a claim of a superior education for your employer. To the American post-secondary education system, the more you spend on your education = the better education you received = the more you are worth, or the more you spend, the more educated you are. If college were to be tuition free, this reasoning would become absolutely meaningless.

This leaves us with a veritable Catch-22; the country wants you to go to college to increase your worth, so in making college tuition free, education would become more accessible and increase our worth as a society. However, if college were to be free, the ability to attach one’s worth to a dollar amount would disappear, nullifying the argument altogether.


Layer 3: Education Itself

Putting cost and worth aside, the next layer to this cake of Crepe Mille like proportions we are building, is the question of education. If the government, i.e, the taxpayers, are paying for someone’s education, how much say should they get in said education? A student from Denmark, a nation with completely free college tuition, explains the common occurrence of the perpetual student in their education system. This is to say that one simply never graduates. Year after year, they change their program of study, extending the typical 4 year degree, well beyond this time, the Dane even claiming to know several students who have spent a decade in school without earning a degree.

What drives most students through college is finances. We have to get through school and enter the workforce so we can pay back our loans, or we need to choose an area of study that will be economically viable and useful to us in the future; while we usually look at any course that does not count to our degree as a needless expense. Right now, no one can agree on how to control situations like this. Should the government restrict the programs they pay for? Then this would mean they are saying one area of study is more important than another. Should they penalize studies who decide to change their area of study? But then this would mean they are condemning someone simply because they wanted to pursue something else. Maybe then they should only pay for two-year colleges and trade schools; many people may then decide not to pursue advanced degrees as they can make a decent living on what the can earn from what the government will pay for.

Then the issue becomes the quality of education. Though above we dealt with worth, and cost essentially meaning quality, but in a real world setting, students who receive free tuition abroad state that compared to the education in the US or Britain, free tuition usually means larger class sizes and less coursework, as instructors must adapt their lessons to suit everyone, not just a few. This does not necessarily mean a difference in quality, but more an issue of subject depth, thus raising the question of how to compensate class size with course offering.


Layer 4: Politics

The other issues raised so far incorporate a great deal of politics, but on a whole, politics all come down to policy, and policy means law. In the US government right now, I mentioned that almost every politician agrees that the cost of a college education is too much, debt is too high, and someone has to step in to make it more accessible and cost effective to students across the country. What they cannot agree on is how to do this. Below are the opinions of the candidates from the 2016 elections, just to represent the differences in opinions, even along party lines.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Higher education must be a right for all”

  • Supports the European model
  • Believes the fed gov should commit to at least 67% of all finances incurred
  • Current FinAid will stay in place to cover cost of living
  • More funding to work study programs
  • Capping student loan payments
  • Robin Hood Tax to increase taxes to wealthy citizens, covering 100% of fees

Pres. Donald Trump: “That’s probably one of the only things the

government should not be making money off”

  • Considers debt, not access to be the most important issue
  • Wants to eliminate the Dept. of Ed, but has no plans for the effect on the Pell Grant
  • Restructure student loans, but says they cannot be outright forgiven
  • Take the fed gov out of the equation and return loans to private banks in order for students to learn to budget and make informed decisions
  • Tie student debt to future job prospects, to ensure loans get repaid
  • Force colleges to set more stringent acceptance standards, preventing students deemed unlikely to succeed from admittance
  • Punish colleges for loan defaults
  • Believes fixing the job market, not tuition costs, will solve the problem
  • Insists it will provide tax breaks, but does not specify how much

Sen. Marco Rubio: “[Private investors] would believe in you so much, and in your success, that they would pay for your college”

  • Loan repayment would be tied to income, not predetermined amount
  • Focuses on alternative financing, or investors
  • Wants schools to provide statistic transparency so prospective students can make more informed decisions about education
  • Grants based on need


Hillary Clinton: “I am in favor of making college free for your grandson by having no-debt tuition.”

  • Cost of tuition based on income
  • Increase federal grants to states to $17 billion/ year
  • Capping interest rates on loans
  • Paid for by reducing undisclosed tax deductions for wealthy Americans


Here, four different politicians have four vastly different solutions to the college debt crisis. Now free tuition is not a simple as someone saying “no more fees”. As those who took civics class probably remember, in order to be enacted, it would have to be passed into law. In order for that to happen, a bill would have to be drafted, meaning, despite the differences in opinions and policies, one party or both, would have to negotiate and come to an agreement long enough to draft a proposal for a bill. This proposal would then have to a committee formed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. If the bill survives the House committee intact, it is brought before the entire House, where both parties debate it, change it, and really do whatever they want to it before voting, wherein it either passes or fails. The Senate is a bit more informal, they debate, vote, amend, or just talk to prevent a vote; either way though, it the bill makes it out of both, the approved bills are compared and if they differ in any way, back they go. After the five years or so this frustrating process usually takes our often incompetent government, the bill is then sent to the President who, considering Trump’s policies on free college tuition, will most likely veto it. At this point, Congress can vote with a ⅔ majority to override the veto, but considering how presidents have vetoed over 1400 bills in our history and Congress has only overridden 106 of them, this seems unlikely.



As college students, most of us are looking at a future of loans and tens of thousands in debt, and that makes the idea of free tuition seem so attractive, and that everyone is always talking about it with very little change makes the whole ordeal that much more frustrating, and that no one really takes the time to explain the whole issue just makes it that much more maddening. The intent of this article was meant to clear things up a bit, by showing just how deep and complicated an issue it is. It is my hope that with a better understanding of the details and problems that prevent our nation’s policy makers from acting on this serious issue, the average college student will realize that it is not that you are being ignored, it’s just that, just as you do not know how you will take care of your debt, the government is just as clueless.


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