There’s no disputing it: the cost for college tuition and room and board have gone through the roof. Since 1988, the cost of a college education has increased by 163%. However, it’s not just skyrocketing costs that are working against today’s college students. In 1978, working a minimum wage job for the summer could earn a college student enough money to pay tuition at any in-state public university. The current Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, a rate unchanged since July 2009.
States don’t have to follow that standard, but 22 states do, while another 10 have minimum wages under $9 per hour. This means that for a student to work through college, he or she would have to work 2,229 hours to pay for one year of the average college tuition. On average, full-time employees work 2,000 hours per year. It’s no wonder that college debt has recently topped $1.5 trillion. The staggering amount of college debt has prompted a call for something to be done, the loudest of which is a demand for free college tuition.
The Pros of Free College Tuition
Even with free tuition, students would be left with paying for room and board as well as the cost of books and other materials. However, lifting the burden of the high tuition costs would bring a college education into reach for many more students. There are many reasons why it’s the right thing to do.
The Right to an Education
Many people believe that college should simply be an extension of elementary and high school, and as with those, should be paid for with tax dollars. It’s part of the evolution of the education system.
Good for the Economy
With the average college student graduating with $29,800 in debt along with the average $35,600 of college debt taken out by their parents to help them, they often move back in with their parents, get a job, and begin paying back their student loans, which can take 10 years or more. If they didn’t have mountains of school debt, college graduates would be spending their new salaries on apartments, furnishings, and cars, all of which help grow the economy.
Leveling the Playing Field
Free college would allow students who got good grades in high school but are low-income and can’t afford college the ability to go.
It Works Elsewhere
Many countries make it work successfully. Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland all offer free college tuition.
An Investment, not a Handout
High-tech and other companies that require a highly skilled workforce are often forced to look outside the United States for qualified workers. Free college would open up a pool of qualified applicants. It could also reduce the number of people on public assistance, and create a more educated society. A well-educated populace can make better decisions and propel society and the country’s progress as a whole.
Increasing the Workforce
Graduating with huge college loans delays or prevents people from owning a home, getting married, or even starting a family. With fewer babies being born each year, the United States is facing a potential shortage of workers. In fact, the fertility rate needed for a stable workforce is 2.1 children per family, and 2018 saw it drop to 1.72, driving concerns that future businesses will be able to find workers. With graduates being able to find financial stability at an earlier age, they may be able to start a family earlier, which could mean more children.
The Cons of Free College Tuition
While free college seems like a noble endeavor, there’s a lot of concern over its practicality. Sure, it sounds good on paper; however, would it work in reality or be a massively expensive experiment with little or no payout?
It’s too Expensive
Opponents believe that free college is simply too expensive for the government in the long term and that it would result in much higher taxes for everyone. Higher taxes means less money injected into the economy.
Taxpayers Foot the Bill
There’s a concern that free college will increase enrollment and that the expense will simply be too high for taxpayers to take on that burden.
Could Be Long Waiting Times
Higher enrollments may be too much for colleges to handle, which could result in waiting lists.
Quality of Education Could Be Affected
Tax funds will have their limits. This could mean less money for colleges, which could degrade the quality of education. Some believe that if college is free, students won’t study as hard as they would if they were paying for it. They may graduate with a degree that makes them less prepared for jobs in the real world.
College Degree Could Hold Less Value
With more people holding a college degree, it may not be as valuable. Too much competition for jobs requiring a college degree would cause more people to be underemployed.
Where the Candidates Stand
With the 2020 elections around the corner, candidates on both sides are taking a stance on free college tuition for U.S. citizens.
Bernie Sanders (D)
Sanders believes in free college tuition, introducing the College for All Act. According to the plan, it would cost $600 billion spread over 10 years and would make college free for those families with incomes less than $125,000. It covers tuition and fees, not books or room and board, and it’s paid for by taxing speculative Wall Street transactions. Existing loans would have their interest cut in half.
Elizabeth Warren (D)
Warren proposes free two- or four-year public college tuition but would also include $50,000 in student loan debt for 42 million Americans. She also wants to make an additional $100 billion in Pell Grants available to students to cover things such as books and room and board.
Kamala Harris (D)
Harris is a co-sponsor of the College for All Act with Sanders but wants to add provisions that would admonish for-profit colleges that don’t provide a good value to students. She prefers “debt-free” college, which essentially means that those who can afford tuition pay it while those who cannot afford it don’t.
Pete Buttigieg (D)
Buttigieg is against free tuition, preferring instead lowering college costs by expanding Pell Grants and giving states incentives to spend more on higher education.
Kirsten Gillibrand (D)
She proposes community service before college for free tuition. A year of public service would equate to two years at a public community college or university while two years of community service would equate to four years of free tuition.
Cory Booker (D)
Booker is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Debt-free College Act. He is also proposing the American Opportunity Accounts Program, which would give every child an account with $1,000 in it, and up to $2,000 each year after (depending on income). The low-risk account would earn approximately 3% annually, and when the child turns 18, the funds can be used for college, to purchase a home, or for retirement. That could mean as much as $46,215 for a child whose family income is less than $25,100.
Joe Biden (D)
Biden proposes four years at a public college paid for by closing the “stepped-up basis loophole,” which allows no capital gains taxes on inherited assets.
Julian Castro (D), Amy Klobuchar (D), Beto O’Rourke
They all believe that two years of community college should be free, and Klobuchar also believes that Pell Grants should be increased.
Donald Trump (R)
Trump believes in increasing the ability to attend for-profit colleges and putting caps on student loans.
Bill Weld (R)
Weld suggests two years of free community college for displaced workers, encourages online colleges, and proposes allowing students to refinance their loans.
How to Pay for Free College
Those candidates proposing changes to the college system plan to pay for it by:
- Closing corporate and inheritance tax loopholes
- Increasing tax rates for the wealthiest Americans
- Diverting financial aid money toward free tuition
- Decreasing the military budget
- Cutting down on wasteful government spending
It won’t be until 2020 that we know if changes will be made to tackle the current student debt problem. Until then, student debt is likely to continue its steep climb and students will have to continue to find other ways to pay off debt.