Obtaining a degree is one of the most valued assets for a contemporary person to achieve success in life. However, inequality and disparities in access to education obstruct the opportunities for underprivileged and minority populations. Therefore, with the steadily rising cost of college education in the USA, the questions concerning the necessity of free-of-charge college education become omnipresent. The gap between students who can and cannot afford education increases leading to diminished opportunities for low-income individuals to succeed professionally and invest in their family’s future. The debate around this issue has a long history throughout which the representative of economic, political, social, and philosophical spheres presented their argumentation as per the approachability of free education as a phenomenon. There are both positive and negative implications of free higher education, which must be addressed when answering the question of whether college education should be free. This paper argues that despite economic burden and policy challenges, college education should be free since it will ensure equitable access to learning, a more competency-driven workforce, and positive social and economic investment in future generations.
A free college education is not a new concept; it has long been discussed and implemented in many countries of the world. Some successful examples demonstrate the applicability of such an educational system and its positive outcomes for society, economy, employment, and other spheres of a nation’s life. Indeed, several developed European countries, including Germany and France, have implemented specifically designed instruments of tuition-free or aided education to increase the affordability of higher education and increase life opportunities for students (Hugle, 2020). Similarly, the idea of a free college education has been persistently introduced to the USA policies with President Obama’s 2015 promotion of America’s College Promise program (Davidson et al., 2019). As a result, 13 states, namely Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee, “have some type of statewide free tuition or promise program” (Davidson et al., 2018, p. 4). Such a tendency in public policy yields more discussion and more examples of the benefits such an approach to education funding might produce from both short- and long-term perspectives.
Among the reasons why college education should be free, one might list multiple benefits for a nation that are validated by philosophical, sociological, health care, economic, and demographic considerations. From a philosophical perspective, all individuals should have equal opportunities. The contemporary neoliberal society challenges this principle by allocating more opportunities and resources to elites while blocking access for representatives of lower socioeconomic class and underrepresented minority populations. According to Mishory (2018), the concept of free education “articulates a motivating set of values behind it – that education is a component of the social contract owed by the government to its citizens in a democracy” (p. 3). Indeed, if the policymakers make it clear that education is important and the support is available for all the citizens, the principles of democracy will be retained. In such a manner, the integrity of the society through the personal accomplishments of the majority of citizens will contribute to the overall improvement of the social life in the country.
Another important issue that should be addressed in the context of free education benefits is equality and equity. The inclusion of various populations regardless of their socioeconomic status ensures equal opportunity, which is crucial for the multicultural population of the USA. According to Jones and Berger (2018), many students, especially those of color and from low socioeconomic backgrounds, tend to loan money for education, which becomes a long-term burden for them thought most of their adulthood. Indeed, a whole nationwide student debt crisis has been a significant trigger for the implementation of state programs for tuition-free college attendance. The accumulating rate of the debts associated with educational expenditures does not stimulate the economy and amplifies the burden on the individuals who want to pursue continued education (Mishory, 2018). Moreover, the existence of such an omnipresent problem triggers reversed reaction in the public when people tend to withdraw from colleges or even do not consider education due to its unaffordability.
Researchers report that the attention to the student debt crisis initiated by the media encouraged conducting public opinion surveys, which indicated people tend to doubt the value of a college education. In particular, one of the surveys found that 42 percent of Americans consider college degrees “not worthwhile due to student debt and poor job prospects;” 39 percent of dissatisfied individuals “said it was because college costs too much to attend” (Jones & Berger, 2018, p. 1). Thus, it is evident that a disproportional increase in costs of college education causes disruptions in public opinion about higher education as a necessity and intensifies economic and social disparities.
Among other multiple benefits, a free college education might provide to society are the increased quality of professional skills and competencies due to the improved level of knowledge. Indeed, with more accessible education, an average citizen will be more educated and skilled to occupy a solid and financially stable position in professional life. This assumption is validated by the idea that college admission should be based not on the payment capability of a potential student but his or her grades and knowledge (Davidson et al., 2018; Mishory, 2018). The minimum admission requirements should be higher to ensure that individuals with greater talent are enrolled in free programs. Thus, the quality of education will be improved, which will increase the social value of college degrees and improve the overall investment in the future.
The opponents might refer to economic arguments to validate the necessity of a college education to be priced. Indeed, those who do not support the idea of free education refer to the principle that nothing is free. Some other areas of life will suffer when money is directed into the improvement of education access opportunities (Jones & Berger, 2018; Mishory, 2018). The burden on the national economy might lead to increased taxes which will ultimately induce higher costs of living for all the citizens. In such a manner, the opponents consider only the immediate outcomes of free college where affirmative action and similar policies attract unprepared applicants and produce an incompetent workforce to federal or state costs.
However, to introduce a counterargument in response to the opponents’ claims, one might refer to the correlated economic benefits of a free college education. Close cooperation of colleges with public and private organizations for future employment of the students is a way to compensate for monetary losses associated with free education in a relatively short-term perspective. Indeed, research shows that there are multiple programs in several states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and South Dakota, where colleges function according to workforce development principles (Davidson et al., 2018). Such institutions “focus on increasing the number of students with credentials in specific technical programs so that students gain specific industry skills” that match “the in-demand jobs for each respective state” (Davidson et al., 2018, p. 9). Thus, it is possible to attract financial aid from the target organizations that demand a workforce to eliminate the gap in the economy associated with free education for such students.
Furthermore, the increased access of the low-income population to affordable and, more importantly, free higher education will ultimately boost their employment opportunities, which would ultimately increase the rate of the middle-class population. From this perspective, free education is a trigger for a significant economic shift from low-income to middle-class, which will improve the overall state of the economy in the country. Indeed, the long-term perspective plays a decisive role in validating the free college education approach. According to Mishory (2018), “a universal program may be more financially sustainable over time” similarly to social insurance programs like Medicare, “where people have already directly paid into the system and expect a long‑run return” (p. 4). Thus, the financial benefits of the investment in free college will be evident with time.
The examples of successfully implemented free education programs in Germany serve as solid proof of the lifetime return of the expanses. From the quantitative point of view, free tuition is one of the most beneficial funding instruments. In Germany, the value of medical education “accumulates to more than 150,000 Euros over the lifetime,” while other fields’ value estimations range from “20,000 Euros (social sciences) to about 37,000 Euros (math/natural sciences)” (Huge, 2020, p. 10). These data demonstrate that people with a degree will compensate for the expenses of their free education by contributing to the country’s economy throughout their lifespan. Moreover, not only monetary interest plays a role in the long-term outcomes of the increased rate of college admission. With a higher percentage of student enrollments, the quality of life will increase. Educated parents will encourage their next generations to pursue higher goals in life, which will ultimately trigger a more sustainable and successful society.
In summary, despite the controversy surrounding the issue of free college education in the USA, there are significant indicators of the rationality of such an approach. Multiple state programs inside the country and foreign experience in this field demonstrate that both economic and social outcomes of free tuition are worthwhile. A free college education is capable of eliminating racial and socioeconomic disparities, eliminating the problem of the student debt crisis, and ensuring equity and equality of opportunity for all citizens. Moreover, increased college enrollment will contribute to a higher level of professional competency, skills, and knowledge for on-demand job students. The programs of inter-organizational cooperation with employers from the public and private sectors will ensure an increased level of employment and short-term financial returns for education.
Despite the claims that free education will burden the already weak economy and increase taxes, the value of long-term lifetime returns will make a significant contribution to the economy. Ultimately, the percentage of the low-income population will decrease, while the overall quality of life will grow due to the improvement of the population’s education. Next generations of students will be more likely to seek continuous education and invest in the economy using their skills, which will improve social life on a general scale.
Davidson, C. T., Ashby-King, D. T., & Sciulli, L. J. (2018). The higher education funding revolution: An exploration of statewide community college “free tuition” programs. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 1-17. Web.
Hugle, D. (2020). Higher education funding in Germany: A distributional lifetime perspective Diskussionsbeiträge, 2021(1). Web.
Jones, T., & Berger, K. (2018). A promise fulfilled: A framework for equitable free college programs. The Education Trust. Web.
Mishory, J. (2018). “Free college:” Here to stay?. The Century Foundation. Web.