In much of the developed world, an education is already free. Kids attend K-12 schools regularly without paying for tuition, books, and other educational costs. Taxes help to support the educational process through high school.
Once you receive a high school diploma, however, the price of schooling rises dramatically. That is why many have wondered if college should be free as well.
What many people may not realize is that in the mid-19th century, colleges were free in the United States. Land-grant institutions, established by the Morill Act of 1862, made it possible for states to place a college on government land to promote an advanced education. These public colleges often offered classes without tuition.
Here are the pros and cons of going back to such a system.
List of the Pros of Free College
1. It would reduce the amount of student debt being carried over time.
From 2011-2015, the amount of student loan debt associated with college attendance rose by 39%, reaching $1.3 trillion. Student loans are the most common type of financial aid that is requested by college students. More than 10 million students take out loans every year to pay for their tuition and learning costs. By making college free, these costs would be shifted to other locations, like a fuel tax or a sales tax, making it easier to handle the costs of tuition.
2. It would provide more people with relevant vocational knowledge.
At the moment, just 56% of students who are currently enrolled in their first year of college will earn a degree within 6 years. The highest completion rates are for students attending private, non-profit schools. The lowest completion rate is for students attending a two-year public college. By making college free, the students with fewer opportunities would be able to pursue relevant information about a career they are passionate about, giving them a chance to stay off public assistance programs.
3. It could lead to new levels of innovation.
Under the current educational structure, students are forced to deal with their debt at the expense of their creativity. There are fewer opportunities available to try new ideas, pursue interesting concepts, or explore ways to use their talents because they are saddled with high monthly payments. At the very least, making college free would help people stay happier, which would mean they would be healthier. It could also lead to incredible moments of innovation that could change the world.
4. It would allow students to focus on their education.
For students coming from a challenging financial situation, college is expensive, even when student loans are available. The average Pell grant in the United States currently covers about 30% of tuition costs. In the generation before, this grant covered 75% of tuition costs. When there is less debt involved, students can focus more on their school work and less on finding a job to pay for those expenses. That leads to higher grades and better job opportunities in the future, no matter what a student’s socioeconomic situation happens to be.
5. It would provide better economic benefits to society.
When students graduate with a high level of student loan debt, then it reduces their opportunities to purchase a home in the future. It has even stopped some people from getting married, especially if both people have high levels of student loan debt. Couples with student loan debt put off having children. For all parties, it directly impacts wealth accumulation in a negative way.
6. It would give students a chance to try multiple majors.
Many students already struggle to decide on the major they want to have when attending college. They are forced into a specific program at some point because of the per-credit cost of taking classes outside their major to earn their degree. If college were free, there would be more opportunities available to explore different majors. There could be caps placed on the number of switches allowed to prevent abuse of this type of system too.
7. It would allow more people to go to college.
If college were free, then it would encourage more people to go. As long as a GED or high school diploma was earned, then it would be possible to attend college if desired. That process would also make it possible to exclude those who have not fully invested into their education, while still providing an incentive to go back to school after dropping out.
8. It would add value to certain degrees from specific institutions.
Making college free would create a unique change in the value of an education from an employer standpoint. Those who want to attend a private, 4-year institution would still be able to do so. There would be more value found in a degree from such an institution when compared to one offering free tuition. At the same time, however, students with talents and skills, without money, would still be able to compete for work. Those who want added value with a degree would still be able to get it under this type of structure.
9. It would produce more economic activity.
When new spending occurs at public institutions, even under the current system available to students in the U.S., then the economic activity produced from that spending is similar to what happens when a tax cut is passed. It is also similar to the economic activities generated by infrastructure spending. College graduates also generate more in tax revenues compared to the general population, smoke less, commit fewer crimes, and apply for fewer social welfare program benefits.
10. It would still permit college students to have a stake in their education.
There will always be some students who are less concerned about their studies than they are the social aspects of attending college. Even under a system of free college, students would still have a stake in their education. Financial responsibility is only one form of responsibility that is possible. Maintaining a specific GPA, being expected to graduate within a specific time, or being eligible for job placement services are all possibilities that could be instituted in such a program.
11. It comes with a reasonable annual cost.
In the United States, the estimated cost of paying for free college is about $70 billion per year. That could be achieved with a 10% cut to the defense spending budget and supplemental funding from each state. Although such a shift would create job losses initially, it would also create net opportunities by empowering students to pursue a career that they love. According to CBS News, 51% of workers aren’t engaged at work. These workers tend to do the bare minimum and nothing more. Allowing people to pursue something they are passionate about could change this.
12. It would equip people for a changing economy.
Free college would also be its own form of a safety net for workers in an economy that is changing. As one industry winds down, another picks up. That requires workers to be retrained, which at the moment is a financial responsibility which falls on them. This structure would keep more people working and get more people back to work faster than the current system.
List of the Cons of Free College
1. It requires someone to pay for it.
College tuition isn’t going to be free. Someone will be asked to pay for the expenses. It requires a shift from the individual to the society as to who will be responsible. Proposed payment options have included closing corporate tax loopholes, increasing tax rates on the wealthiest 0.1% in the U.S., implementing taxes on speculative investments, or decreasing the military budget, which is routinely over $600 billion in the U.S. each year.
2. It might encourage financial irresponsibility.
One of the most important lessons learned in college is how to manage your personal finances. It is a lesson that some students are forced to learn the hard way. Having a student loan may be the first major financial transaction that someone has. Being able to pay it off without missing payments makes it easier to establish a good credit score and make future purchases. If college was free, the financial lessons would disappear and there would be fewer opportunities to establish a strong credit profile.
3. It could devalue the worth of a diploma.
In the United States, student loans have already devalued the worth of a 4-year degree. To earn an upper middle class income, many students are finding that a graduate degree is becoming necessary. Free college could devalue degrees in other ways as well, from students deciding to cut classes because they have no personal investment to less involved with their studies. There is a strong possibility that free college would encourage more reckless in college learning, not less.
4. It would cause more people to go to college.
When more people are infused into a system that is not used to accommodating them, bad things happen as a result. We already experienced this issue when changes to the healthcare system in the United States were implemented in 2010. With more patients qualifying for covered care, wait times at medical clinics went from 1 week to 6 months almost overnight. That lowered the quality of care available and made accessibility more difficult. If college were to be free, this issue would likely occur within the educational realm as well.
5. It might reduce state programs in other essential areas.
In the United States, the costs of a public education are often fronted at the state level. By making college free, each state would be forced to come to grips as to how they would afford this option. With budgets already strained in many areas, the likely result of free college would be a reduction, or termination, of other core safety net programs which support low-income families.
6. It could reduce the efficiencies found in the public system already.
When college is free, there is less of an incentive to find ways to save money in the system. Institutions would know that they’d receive funding no matter what. That might result in wasteful spending habits, especially since free colleges would no longer need to compete with private institutions for enrollment. That process would put yet another strain on state budgets.
7. It wouldn’t eliminate the costs of attending college.
When discussion the pros and cons of making college free, the debate involves the tuition costs which students would be asked to pay. It does not involve the costs of living, the cost of books, and the other expenses which come with college. Some students would be able to find a job to cover these expenses. Others would not. That means the student loan economy would certainly shrink. It would not disappear.
The pros and cons of having free college show us that there would be changes to our society that would require adaptation. We enough work, it can be a successful experience. There are several countries which offer 4-year degree and graduate degree programs that are free already. The average student loan in Finland, for example, is $1,200. In the U.S., it is $15,510. It can work, but we must make it work together.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.