The Cost of Free Tuition

Benjamin Scudder
Mar 29, 2018 · 7 min read

Benjamin Scudder

I grew up in a household surrounded by education. Both of my parents were teachers at the college and high school level, and it showed in their parenting. With a heavy emphasis on reading and the importance of school during my childhood, I never thought about college as an unreachable task, but more as a given. I understand the significance of higher education and believe that everyone should be able to acquire it. And I even once thought that free tuition for colleges and universities was a viable way to achieve equal access to education opportunities for all.

But it isn’t, and it never will be.

Throughout human history, the level of education of the people has been a standard to represent the successfulness, progressiveness, and strength of that society. We look back on civilizations, such as the Romans or Greeks, with a sense of admiration for their abilities to educate the people to a point of responsibility.

In the present, the level of education available is extraordinary for those who can afford it, with prestigious colleges and universities scattered across the nation. But today we struggle with providing everyone with the access to obtain that education and acquire the higher levels of learning that college would provide. Economic opportunities are unique, everyone has a different situation influenced by a plethora of factors. Which raises the questions, should the educational opportunities of an individual be influenced by the economic hand they are dealt? And in what way would a solution be successfully implemented?

This is where idealists and economists step in, to debate the notion of integrating free tuition for college students into government policy. The first piece of this intricate puzzle is how and what “free” means. In this case, “free” means that the cost of attendance would not fall on the student, but on the government, and subsequently on the taxpayers. How this would be implemented, received and supported by the people all fall into the holistic complexity of such an ideal.

It is clear that the vast majority of the population is in favor of an educated public, and understands the benefits that free tuition would have for the next generation. And because of the ethical obligation that we feel to allow for equal educational opportunities for all, regardless of their economic class, many fall victim to idealistic ways. As a prominent figure in the fight for free tuition nationwide, Bernie Sanders stated, “everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay”. And he’s right, this is not a radical idea, but it’s not a realistic possibility either. There should be no opposition to the concept that everyone should be able to receive the education they desire, as the countless benefits would greatly better our society. But if we as people decide to base our expectations on an unrealistic concept such as free tuition, we will not only be unsatisfied when these expectations aren’t met, but the interactions that we have between one another will be eliminated, destroying the strongest bond that prevents our nation from crumbling.

The United States of America is a nation of integration and communication amongst the many economic classes that exist. Yet discrimination based on economic class is a very real issue. Although there is no intentional denial based off class, those without available opportunities are trapped in their current situation with very limited ways to get out. A perceived solution to combat this unintentional discrimination has developed in a field where money truly matters; college. The main argument used by idealists in favor of free tuition is that it would supposedly create equal access to educational opportunities for all, regardless of income. And it would on the surface, until the effects on high schools and even elementary schools are realized.

For those who could have already afforded college, the focus would simply shift to obtaining the best transcript, as the emphasis on high school grades are enhanced. The economic situation of your family would once again come into play as the best SAT Prep, summer boot camps, tutors and private schools would be necessary to gain access to further education. The fiscal advantages for some would in no way be eliminated, as many believe, but it would simply shift from college to pre-college.

The idea that free tuition for colleges and universities would influence the social interactions of the American people is something that is rarely taken into consideration. With a greater importance placed on the high school career of students, an increased number of students would be encouraged to attend private schools that normally wouldn’t, as they historically offer an increased chance at college admittance. With this shift in attendance, greater polarization would be created between those who can afford private schools, and those who can’t; or in simpler terms, the richer and the poorer. With the increasing lack of interaction between the two groups, further separation would occur between the American people into the have, and have-nots, far greater than what already exists.

While social and economic repercussions will certainly be felt if free tuition was integrated into government policy, the idea would have to be effective in the first place. And to be effective, it must take all economic factors into account as they would alter the actual implementation of the program. One of the most significant factors that is rarely considered is the actual necessity of free, universal college. Eric Maskin, an economist from Harvard University stated that “Many students can afford to pay a considerable amount towards their higher education. It is wasteful to give them a free ride”. When constructing any large, fiscal plan, the distribution of resources must be done efficiently and with deep consideration. By permitting free tuition for those who could already afford some, if not all of the college attendance, fiscal irresponsibility is being practiced as those funds could be utilized for much more beneficial and significant needs. It is important to understand that the intention behind free tuition is to create a greater sense of equality of access in society, but that opposite would actually occur as the benefits would fall more on those who could already afford college than those who need them.

Besides being a gross waste of tax dollars as many don’t need free tuition, an adverse effect would be created as the cost of college would potentially increase. Brian Wesbury, the chief economist at First Trust Advisors claims how, “When you give something away for free, the demand for it picks up, when the demand picks up, the price picks up. We already know what student loans have done to the cost of college”. Similar to when student loans gained popularity, colleges would realize that in order to make a profit, they would have to raise the cost of attendance past that which the government is willing to pay. It must be understood that private college is a business, even with the primary goal of educating, the idea of profit lies underneath the surface. Even if the government decided to combat the increasing cost of colleges by simply agreeing to pay any extra amount, an exponential increase of taxes would occur as colleges and the government would continually force each other to raise costs. Because of the focus on profits, the idea of free tuition for private colleges would be even more impractical than at public universities as prices would be uncontrolled and taxes would skyrocket. When looking at the concept of free tuition as a whole, we can clearly see how unrealistic the idea really is, as the implementation of such a program would never actually be successful in our society.

We as a nation can unanimously agree that society would only benefit from higher education levels of the people. More informed, conscientious, and impactful decisions can be made when the people are educated to a point of responsibility. And in an ideal world, free tuition may be a valid way to go about achieving that, but it would simply never work in America. Besides having an inverse of the intended effect, as greater separation between the rich and poor would occur, and the economic situation of an individual would still matter. Free tuition would undoubtedly increase taxes, upsetting a large percentage of the population. Overall, the concept would simply never work in our society as the combination of the unintended negative effects and the anger created amongst the people would push free tuition out of government policy.

By initially eliminating the cost of college, not only would the cost of attendance potentially increase, but the world of the haves and have-nots would simply cascade into the high school setting. The polarization of wealth and lack of interaction between classes would not be eliminated like many think but would actually be reinforced throughout society. When looking at the concept of free tuition for colleges and universities as a whole, it can easily be understood that it is a complex topic with many influencing factors. We as good citizens with moral values see the reasoning behind such an idea and the benefits that it would hold if it were ever successfully implemented into American society.

But it won’t, and it never will be.


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