The “Free College” Debate: Questions for Developing an Informed Position

  • Politics
  • 2/19/2020
Man studying in library

Tuition-free higher education is a hot political topic. Here are some questions to help you consider the practical application of a free public college and university system so you can join the conversation.

Several politicians and individuals, including some presidential candidates, have pledged to deliver “free” college as a public benefit. Tuition-free higher education continues to be a hot topic, and the industry’s leaders and administrators have a stake in the debate. Proponents and opponents both offer valid and interesting points, and it’s helpful to understand and consider them in developing your own informed opinion on the issue.

What the proponents say

Proponents of a free public higher education system argue four main outcomes of their proposed policies:

  • Student debt reduction or elimination: Student loan debt is staggering. Many graduates start their careers and adult lives owing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in college costs, while others don’t even attempt to apply for or enroll in higher education programs because of the prohibitive price of tuition and fees. Proponents say that free higher education will open doors to opportunities for those who could otherwise not attend college or who would carry crippling debt to pay for it. Some proposals would even forgive existing student loans, unburdening borrowers of their debts.
  • Merit and athletic scholarships re-purposing: Free public college education will not eliminate the need or supply of merit and athletic scholarships. In fact, those scholarships will be re-purposed to provide additional income to the students who have already started their college careers, as well as help alleviate some financial concerns for students who qualify for free tuition.
  • Labor shortage correction: Many who support free college suggest that states could use the system’s benefits to strategically address worker shortages by incentivizing students to pursue professions and trades in which such shortages exist. Some students may not enroll in programs for which they have a real passion due to concerns over the cost of tuition and the amount of student debt they may have when they leave college. Free college education may help those students decide to pursue their passions and potentially help address some skills shortages in the marketplace.
  • Increased funding to states: Federal funding for higher education has decreased over the last several years. Proponents say that more federal dollars could be used in such a way to encourage states to reinvest in their public colleges and universities. 

What the opponents say

Opponents of a free education system have four overarching concerns:

  • Free isn’t free: Somebody has to pay for the proposed public benefits, which an increased number of students would claim, driving already high costs up even further. The question of who and how prevents many policymakers from moving forward, even though other details in the existing proposals may be attractive.
  • Independent colleges may suffer: Opponents are worried about the potential impact free public education could have on independent colleges, many of which are already experiencing financial difficulties, as students may leave those institutions to enroll in free public schools. This could diminish educational choice and quality.
  • Untested programs could be unduly funded: Experiential learning is becoming a preferred alternative to a traditional degree — and gaining momentum — though its benefits aren’t yet proven. Opponents don’t like the idea of including new programs as part of a free higher education system, because doing so blurs lines and makes accountability more difficult.
  • Online colleges may suffer: Success of some of the online programs is, to a great degree, attributed to their affordability and convenient schedule. These programs will be in fierce competition with colleges that participate in free public education programs and may suffer a decline in the number and academic standing of the students who will be enrolling.

Questions to help you consider the practicality of free college

Consider finding answers to the following questions to more deeply understand the issue and make an informed decision.

  • Accountability: What accountability measures, both for students and institutions, would be implemented with a free higher education program? These might be minimum student enrollment and performance standards for eligibility, satisfactory progress, cost of attendance structuring requirements, and “price controls.”
  • Limits: Would there be a cap on tuition that would be considered “free”? How would incidental costs be covered? How would existing student financial aid programs be affected?
  • Cost containment: Could the proposed free system make it too easy for colleges to raise costs, knowing the government will pay for them? Does it de-emphasize efforts at cost containment? Will there be caps on reimbursement to public colleges that offer free education? Will this system force colleges to become creative about how they charge for other costs of education?
  • Non-public schools and competition: For independent institutions, will it impact how much they can charge, or will their reputation allow for maintaining net tuition rates? Could they be included in the free higher education system in some way (maybe through an association with a free two-year community college)?
  • Overall affordability: In a tuition-free environment, what will be done to address the non-tuition costs that may still make education unaffordable to some students (i.e., what will be done to actually lower the cost of a degree, as many proposals only subsidize it)? At many colleges and universities, the non-tuition costs, such as room and board, are larger than the costs of net tuition and fees; will that change under the free higher education system?

Higher education can have a profound impact on the future of individuals and the whole of society. Costs have become prohibitive or excessively burdensome for many. Whether tuition is covered by taxpayers or left to students and their families, managing and reducing costs should remain a top priority for institutions, policymakers, and resource providers.

How we can help

CLA’s higher education professionals are eager to research and explore the various positions related to this topic. We can connect you with peers to share your thoughts and continue the debate.

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