Nowadays, the American higher education system faces a crisis like no other. As institutions hastily try to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the enrollment numbers hit a new record low. All but the wealthiest universities remain on the verge of a potential catastrophe as a result of decreasing revenue and return on investment. The rough estimates demonstrate that “one-third of all private colleges are now on track to run out of money within six years – a nearly 50 percent increase in estimates from 2019” (Carey 30). Although the pandemic is not the primary cause of the challenges faced by higher education institutions, it has managed to highlight the vulnerability to the bankruptcy of the majority of colleges. Public universities are no exception either, with the substantial cuts in federal government funding they are experiencing, which forces them to increase prices and reject millions of desperate students.
As a result of long-term declines in enrollment and graduation rates, it has not been hard for COVID-19 to speed up these unfortunate trends, which primarily affect the underprivileged population. The likelihood of students possessing low-income and immigrant backgrounds, as well as people of color to drop out or delay attending college has skyrocketed (Carey 30). Thus, the nation has to deal with the vicious cycle that emerges. Widespread unemployment fuels the need for higher education or retraining, which, in turn, forces people to take out loans they are unable to pay off. Therefore, economic inequality and racial wage gaps continue to widen – a picture opposite the American ideal of diversity, opportunity, and equality.
While public institutions may simply raise the prices, private colleges will have to use deceptive marketing methods to ensure impressionable youth is going to take out hundreds of thousands of loans from the U.S. Department of Education to pay for criminally overcharged degrees. Much of such debt is doomed to never get repaid, which means that millions of Americans’ lives will suffer from ruined credit and financial struggles. In addition, it is important to acknowledge the effect college bankruptcies and closures will have on the towns and cities they are located in. This social decay and disruption are crucial to take into account while discussing the issues faced by the higher education system. It is evident that the only way to resolve them is for the federal government to initiate reforms and provide the citizens with a substantial rescue package. This essay argues that ensuring higher education is a universal system free for everybody is the only proper way to minimize inequality, to put an end to an economic decline, and raise a new generation of resilient and highly-skilled workers.
The popularity of the Idea
The idea of free tuition is relatively new, with a number of left-wing politicians adding the promise to make higher education more affordable to their agendas. Although the discussion about the detrimental impact of student loans and rising degree costs has been present for many years, free college is a solution, which has started to take over the public debate. As of May 2019, “more than 350 localities in 44 states have enacted free college policies, and 23 states considered or are still debating legislation,” according to Boggs and Kennedy (7). For example, Tennessee, Oregon, Kentucky, and California have all initiated programs offering free community college degrees to students (Botelho 17). People of any background, social-economic status, or age can reap the benefits of such policies. These initiatives are aimed at attracting first-generation college students and those who wish to retrain for an evolving job market.
The popularity of free college reforms and individual projects is largely associated with the tuition cost reductions they facilitate, which allow underprivileged youth to attain a degree. For instance, Botelho reports that the newly created San Jose Promise program is going to “reduce costs significantly for 800 low-income and first-generation students in the 2017-2018 school year” (17). Thus, it is apparent that free college initiatives are growing in popularity and the rates of approval by both the public and state authorities. They seek to provide underprivileged individuals with an opportunity to acquire a degree and to contribute to the development of a sustainable economic environment by investing in educating a highly-specialized workforce. Most importantly, free college promise programs are imperative for addressing the rapidly increasing tuition costs.
The Cost of College Tuition
In order to grasp the sheer scope of the issues surrounding higher education, it is crucial to examine the cost of a college degree for an average American high school graduate. After all, it is important to uncover what exactly makes the affordability of college education a priority for senators and state authorities. Boggs and Kennedy report that tuition had grown by 260% in a matter of 34 years, from 1980 to 2014 (6). Interestingly enough, the consumer price index increased only by 120% (Boggs and Kennedy 6). The College Board published the average costs of attending college as of 2018. Thus, private universities charge $48,510 for academic tuition and associated fees (Boggs and Kennedy 6). On average, the cost of tuition is “$37,430 for out-of-state residents at four-year public colleges, $21,370 for in-state students at state schools, and $12,310 at community colleges” (Boggs and Kennedy 6). It is apparent that these high numbers are proportional to the incomes of many parents, which demonstrates a conundrum recent high school graduates face in deciding to attend a good university or even a local community college.
Education as a Basic Human Right
Education should be regarded as a basic human right, which means that everybody has to possess the opportunity to attend a higher education institution for free. Critics often argue that making universities free of charge would mean substantially benefit the rich who would not need to pay although they have the means to (Konczal para. 3). First, it does not cost more to educate students from wealthy families, so they should not have to pay more for the same degree. After all, even the country’s richest can ride the subway at a normal price or go to the public park for free. The very meaning of public institutions is to ensure that everyone who has the desire to can take part in them. Therefore, income inequalities should be balanced out by taxes.
Second, the affordability of college education is a value-based issue rather than a problem that requires only an economic equation to resolve. Attending a university should be public good; public goods, in turn, are universal. Free tuition is not advocated for in order to enable the children of millionaires and billionaires to free-ride the system. Statistics demonstrate that the spending allocated to facilitate free higher education opportunities for the top 1 percent is close to 1.4% of funds (Bokat-Lindell para. 9). A New York Times contributor Bokat-Lindell argues that even though this percentage is “slightly regressive in relative terms,” it is “not an exorbitant price to pay for the 98.6 percent of spending that would benefit everyone else” (para. 9). Moreover, additional spending on the nation’s wealthiest would be financed by raised taxes.
The government should genuinely make an effort to ensure free college for all no matter the ultimate choice of a funding proposal the officials are going to make. Universal free higher education has to be integrated as a part of a broader vision for the future, with the colleges being a public good akin to a local park or a library. After all, Bokat-Lindell claims that means-tested benefits are not the solution the U.S. is looking for (para. 11). Programs targeted exclusively at one ethnic or socio-economic group are something out of the perfect American future some politicians envision. In reality, they are the first to get cut, which makes universal government initiatives a much better solution. By taking this approach and developing a number of universal programs, the authorities can ensure that everybody is allowed to enjoy necessities such as free higher education, which leads to buy-in for an efficient welfare state. The primary value behind free college is not to make the lives of the top 1 percent easier, but to ensure the success of those not having any privileges possible in the first place.
Free College as a Solution to Inequality
It is crucial to recognize that the current higher education system possesses numerous inequities targeting low-income individuals and racial minorities. Free college can ensure that at least some of these inequities are motivated through the increase in enrollment and the decrease of those less fortunate relying on student loans. Furthermore, promise initiatives are imperative for the rise in completion rates, which is especially important for first-generation college attendees. Although some critics choose to focus on the top 1 percent, free college initiatives will have the most profound effect on the lives of ordinary boys and girls around the country. In the context of affordability, those who will experience the majority of the benefits provided by free tuition programs are individuals coming from lower and median income backgrounds.
The aforementioned initiatives can ensure that everyone is at least mostly on an equal playing field when it comes to educational and career opportunities. Furthermore, Konczal notes that “if schools are able to benefit directly from taking in a greater number of high-income students, this may amplify, rather than weaken, the consumerist model” (para. 8). Thus, the argument that colleges should not be free and, in fact, charge wealthier students more is null. By charging the top 10 percent higher fees, universities would likely focus primarily on the needs of these students since they are the only ones generating profit. As a result, colleges would be competing against each other in their ability to attract and pamper the richest instead of facilitating a truly inclusive structure of higher education. The current system magnifies such destructive tendencies, while the free college programs maximize the possibility of true inclusion and socio-economic equality.
In regards to the effect the rising tuition costs have on the economy, the contribution student loans make to an overall economic decline is apparent. First, it is important to recognize that an average amount of student loan debt equals to tens of thousands of dollars. Second, it is crucial to acknowledge how affected recent graduates are by the fluctuations in the job market, which makes unemployment or underpaid work a reality for some. As people graduate with debt, they are likely to spend years upon years paying it off due to the aforementioned lack of high-paying career opportunities as well as growing interest rates. As a result, the more they spend paying off the student loan debt, the less time and money they have to make substantially large purchases such as a car or a house.
Therefore, graduating with zero debt would enable young women and men to make the process of earning, saving, and spending money much faster. With the spending of this consumer group increasing, the demand would grow as well, which goes back to the higher demand in labor, or essentially more career opportunities (Troop para. 6). It is apparent that free college programs would allow the nation’s economy to enter a robust and beneficial economic cycle.
Higher Education as a Fair Market
Possibly, the most underestimated advantage of free high education is the ability it provides to indirectly oversee and control the costs set by private institutions. An example of this is clear in the existing public health care system. A public option forces private alternatives to employ reasonable pricing strategies and charge a fair price to remain competitive on the market. As such, the current system of loans and other forms of financial assistance to attain a college degree increases the relative cost of tuition. Thus, the efforts to decrease the tuition costs at public schools will decrease the prices of programs at private universities as well, at least to the same extent (Konczal para. 10). Konczal notes that free college programs ensure that educational institutions attract more students depending primarily on the quality of services they provide (para. 10). In turn, this is much better than universities relying on marketing schemes and deceptive tactics to prey on naive youth, which some of them do as part of the current system.
The current structure of higher education is crumbling, which explains why the government’s efforts to subsidize schools using loans and grants or to invest more and more funds into the system through the tax code, are doomed to fail. Instead, the authorities can initiate free college programs, which would incentivize private institutions to charge lower prices (Covert 5). There is no incentive for universities to cut costs when the government subsidizes grants and other various forms of financial assistance. Covert argues that “by covering increases in tuition and fees, it may do the opposite, encouraging colleges and universities to raise their prices” (5). Therefore, it is apparent that free tuition initiatives ensure that even the key players in the education industry operate in a fair market. This is exceptionally important, especially as the United States enters a new chapter of technological development, with so many people requiring specialized knowledge to secure the coveted position on the job market.
Specialized and More Competent Workforce
Nowadays, there are a number of emerging technologies that have the potential to generate societal and economic shifts, including irrevocable changes in the labor market. Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are on their way to transforming the current reality in profound ways. These technologies enable large-scale revolutions in communication, manufacturing, and the very methods of human interaction with the outside world. Furthermore, as AI and automation mature, their impact will become even more noticeable. As of 2020, automated machines have already started to overtake some of the menial tasks previously done by humans (Benanav 45). The threat of these new workforce entrants is imminent and seemingly inescapable, which poses a number of challenges the current and next generations will have to overcome. As the technologies become more sophisticated and complex, they will be integrated into the majority of organizations’ business operations (Lent 207). Combined with emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, automation will undoubtedly change the employment market dynamics of today.
Automation will force workers to grow professionally and personally in order to navigate the market full of updates, constant changes, and loads of new information. As a result, many people will have to ensure they bring the most value to their employers. One of the most efficient ways they can do this is through educational programs and retraining. Olhede and Wolfe note that “investment in adult education may be needed to ensure those without a job can find their way back into employment” (7). Thus, going into the future, the government has to ensure that it is affordable for the citizens to learn new skills or the language of algorithms and codes. Therefore, free college can be either a short-term response to shield the affected workers or a part of a long-term strategy to help humanity adapt to the newest technological revolution (Olhede and Wolfe 7). There is no way to predict accurately what percentage of the population will lose their jobs due to automation in the upcoming years.
It is evident that millions of people will definitely need some sort of retraining, which makes the higher education system the center of attention in the nearest future. The labor market for future generations will be exponentially different. This puts educational institutions in a unique position of influence due to their responsibility to provide people with the necessary knowledge to adjust to the dynamic shift.
As large corporations and the smallest companies adopt AI-generated optimization solutions, the demand for AI will increase. Thus, the country will need more niche specialists such as deep learning programmers, scientists, engineers, and consultants. As data becomes the new currency, data scientists will be sought after as well (Lent 211). Moreover, growing demand for ethicists is going to emerge as humanity will try to resolve the moral dilemmas associated with the newest technologies. In turn, those who will reap the benefits of the changes are the people who will possess the proper knowledge. Therefore, if the United States wants to ensure equal opportunities for all, the government will have to implement free college programs for everyone to take advantage of their chance to succeed in the nearest future.
In conclusion, free college is a relatively new concept, which has entered the public consciousness as a part of the political discussions regarding the affordability of higher education. Free college programs should be integrated into the nation’s larger vision of universal well-being and prosperity. First, they are imperative to battle socio-economic and racial inequities in higher education. Second, they are a long-term solution to the United States’ economic downturn and the existing unemployment crisis. Moreover, going into the future, free tuition can ensure that the nation’s workforce possesses the right skills and has the ability to retrain easily to adapt to technological advancements.
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