For the Low Price of "Free": Should Higher Education be Made Free for All?
Over the past five years, the subject of free college education has sparked many debates and conversation. Higher education as a means of making obtaining a future career has been around since the early 1600's. (Clearly University, 2020) Even with this in mind, tuition for colleges did not truly exist until the 1700's more and more universities started to adopt the model while Thomas Jefferson pushed for the government to support institutions and let their students get their education at a fraction of the cost. (Best Colleges Online, 2020) Jefferson never saw this model come to be in his lifetime, but the subject of affordable institution and free education had been brought about long before more recent discussion. Now, over 300 years later, students, politicians and parents are still talking about the subject and want to make it a reality. The cost of institution is only growing as time goes on. An education at Harvard University in 1870 would only cost the average student 150 dollars a year, at the time of writing an Education at the same university would bring the students yearly cost to 51,925 United States dollars a year. (Best Colleges Online, 2020) Of course, the educational offerings of such a university would have changed fairly drastically over 200 years, but even back in the 1800's 150 dollars was no amount to sneeze at. Fast forward to the year 2020 and the topic of affordable education becomes one of the cornerstones of the general elections. The idea became much more of a political standing for both candidates for the presidential seat. "...free college has become a major policy point for Democrats, adopted by several candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign. Currently, President-elect Joe Biden supports a middle-of-the-road plan for free college." (Dennon, 2020) Other politicians would be seen making this push for a more balanced education system such as Senator Bernie Sanders. He was one of the first political figures to make a realistic push towards the idea of higher education being free, presenting a hypothetical roadmap to make it happen and the steps that would need to be taken to do so while also making this one of his main campaign focuses. (Dennon, 2020) Why has this been such a huge talking point though? Currently the United States student debt is sitting at a massive 1.7 trillion dollars as of the third quarter of 2020. (Hess, 2020) Students are finding it harder and hard to even just sign up for college because of their financial standings and finding life even more difficult in terms of paying that debt back with their time and expertise in the career that college was able to help them achieve. There is a clear need for some kind of educational reform. Many suggest free college for all, but what are the actual issues plaguing students in university and what can realistically be done to help lighten the load?
College education is made essential by the modern U.S economy and societal standards, in order to achieve the American dream often spoken about and advertised to those around the world graduating college would be one of those ever-important steps. As of 2019, it is estimated that almost 66% of jobs in the U.S require some level of college education. (Khine, 2019) This can apply to either earning an associate degree, bachelor's degree or a college level certification. Many of these jobs behind the higher education wall are essential to the future of any country such as engineering, science and medicine. Students will find themselves in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after they finish school depending on their desired major. Because of this reality, financial hardship and stress is no uncommon factor for students across the United States. Students starting university back in 2016 and making it to 2020 only come out to a low 25 percent from private, for-profit institutions which usually cost potential students the most for tuition fees. (Statistics, 2020) Many of these drop outs can be attributed to the fact that the financial weight of education can prove to be too much for those looking for a stable career after their time at University. More than a few studies have been made on the stress levels brought on by tuition, but perhaps one of the most notable comes from TD Ameritrade, an electronic trading platform with no small amount of experience in loaning money to those who need it as well as getting those interested in the stock market to take their first steps. "Mounting tuition fees and high stress levels have left more than three-fourths of Gen Z'ers and millennials stressed about tuition, living expenses, getting good grades and finding a career that pays well..." (Tuchscherer, 2019) There is a bit of unreliability in this source seeing as part of their business model is loaning money to students and parents that want to get through college, but their studies are backed up by the dropout rates for most private and public universities. With all this in mind, how is any middle to lower class individual able to put themselves through college without crippling financial debt or crumbling under the pressure of it all? This problem has seen a small amount of rectification over the years through the use of scholarships, grants and student loans.
Scholarships first came about in 1643 when Lady Anne Radcliff Mowlson donated some of her capital to Harvard College for students seeking their education there. (DOWNS, 2018) This act was unprecedented, and college institutions would not see anything like this again until 1902 by the will of Cecil John Rhodes, also known as the Rhodes Scholarships. These scholarships had only gone out to 32 students a year across the country and continue to do so to this day under Rhodes name. (DOWNS, 2018) A noticeable similarity between the two of these early scholarships is the extremely small pool of people these grants would benefit. Millions of students apply of scholarships every year to have an easier time throughout their college experience financially. Typically, scholarships are awarded to students based on their academic achievement in high school, past years in college or efforts in the world outside of campus. These grants can prove to be critical to the possibility of a student being able to spend their full four to six years on campus. Scholarships can cover room and board, tuition and food for those who are lucky enough to earn it, and lucky is very appropriate verbiage here. "Each year, more than 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships are awarded, with a total value of more than $7.4 billion." (Kantrowitz, 2019) These are undeniably large numbers, but put into the perspective of the U.S higher education system the scholarships offered are a mere drop in the bucket compared to those who apply. Data gathered by "Saving for College" shows that as early as October of 2019 that the amount of those millions of students who apply and work toward a full ride scholarship for a bachelor's degree, only 1.5 percent of applicants can achieve this. 2.7 percent of applicants get 90 percent of their tuition covered not counting housing and food, and 5.9 percent get 75 percent of their tuition covered. Undergraduate students are not offered full ride scholarships, and only 0.1 percent of those applicants get more than 25,000 dollars from scholarships. This leaves 97 percent of undergraduate applicants with 2,000 dollars or less from scholarships, the other 2.9 percent not receiving anything. Broken down like this, the chances are a lot slimmer than the overall numbers might imply. Many students rely on scholarships to be able to afford to get their four-year degrees, especially at schools where they would need to move out of state or private institutions which typically have the higher costs for four years of education. This leads to a larger percentage of future students to lean more towards public universities or schools that may not specialize in their desired field or have the greatest teachers and equipment. On Average for the past four years, almost 75 percent of college students attend public universities because of a lack of finances for their classes. (Bustamante, 2019) Public schools become more viable because of their affordability at the cost of the quality of education an individual can receive there, but public education truly exists to the benefit of those who need another option. The same goes for community college, because as much as political groups call for free education, the concept already exists and is in full force in these areas.
The situation for those who cannot afford to pay their way through college on their own seems dire, and undoubtedly there are many people who want the United States government to jump headfirst into free college education for all. Of course, there is always community college and public university, they will not always be the answer for those in a lower financial bracket. There will always be two sides to any story and in this case the other side is largely more financial concerns. Deborah Kurfiss discusses some of these concerns I her article weighing the pros and cons of a completely free higher educational system. One of the highlights comes from the question of college being free across the board. There are students from wealthier financial brackets that would be getting the exact same education for free when the concept for free college stemmed from the idea that there was a staggering amount of people that could not afford to attend. "...others say that college should be free to students from low-income households, but students from households that can afford to pay, should pay. Of course, then it would have to be decided what "afford" means." (Kurfiss, 2020) These qualifications can be tricky enough as it is for what exists today, so I took it upon myself to get an idea of how qualifiers effect students out of high school in a lower income bracket and interviewed a few classmates' former classmates. Out of the ten I interviewed, only three of them could say that their family's income bracket qualified for 50 percent of their tuition covered for their first four years with a GPA at 3.0 or above. The other seven ranged from a 2.7 to 4.0 grade point average in a similar financial situation to the other three, the only difference was their parents had made a larger amount of money in the past 4-5 years than they do at present. Because of this technicality, their children do not qualify for federal aid, but exist within the same income bracket as the three who have their tuition partially covered. One significant case comes from one of my former underclassmen, who requested to not be named in this paper, who spent a large portion of her educational career schooling in the United States on a student visa and expected to get the same opportunities as all her classmates with her 3.8 grade point average. She was offered more than a few scholarships, but her standing as a U.S citizen combined with the money her mother was making the states was not nearly enough for the two of them to pay for her tuition which is increased almost three times as her enrollment would count as out of state and a non-citizen. Of course, she had a very specific circumstance, but she sits in a very similar boat to those who do not qualify for a cheaper education because of an investigative system that does not strive to be thorough or up to date. Kurfiss also brings up the argument that having free higher education will only cause students to lose sight of the value of their education and considering the amount of partying that happens at public and private schools alike this is not very hard to see. According to EducationData.org, the national average of students who graduate college is hovering around 46%. (Bustamante, 2019) This would leave over half of the college population wasting their time and money on their tuition, and a certain number of them could have even received scholarships during their time at school. There is not much data correlating the idea that larger scholarships or full rides make students more irresponsible about their education, but if over half the population with no free institution in place does not make it through college, it is safe to assume that the number could be even higher a few years into the implementation of free college for everyone.
Community college and public universities are essentially the only other higher education options for those who cannot afford their schooling. They both still cost money, and their educational programs may not be as robust as a private institution, but they are largely the reason why the higher education system has not come crashing down long before discussions became a large-scale political issue. Many public universities already have programs in place to make college free for their lowest income students, being able to grant almost 27 percent of those students the chance to not pay any costs in tuition during their time at school. (Akers, 2020) Once again, the number does not sound too bad until brought into perspective. The percentage comes from an article written by Beth Akers with the standpoint that college could be ruined if made free. Akers gets into a few stronger points about what this might do to the educational system as a whole if not done properly, but the study that the author cites has a bit more data on the topic to help put some things into perspective. Just because you are a low-income student attending a public university does not mean your tuition is covered. The same report that Akers cites also shows that if you had 14 students who were part of that low income bracket, only 5 of those students are able to have their tuition covered. (Luetmer, 2020) This would simply leave the other 11 students out of luck, forced to get a loan to be paid back after a certain amount of time or wait till the next semester to get lucky enough to be one of those five. Akers goes into the idea of free institution for more people cheapening the college experience for education, forcing schools to rely on government grants to keep their schools open and fund programs that could otherwise make more of their required capital from tuition costs. This is a valid concern for Americans, especially those who would undoubtedly see their taxes raised as a result of making college free for a larger percentage of individuals. Even with these being strong arguments there are still a few factors to consider. College is already free in other countries with a similar format, free college could open a larger and more innovated work force and could teach future generations to be savvier with their money. There is a very eye-opening article written by Robert Farrington that address these issues and more in a format that responds to arguments made against the idea of a free college format. Farrington suggests ideas that either may not have been thought about on a large scale or already exist in the world at present. For example, Farrington has this to say about taxes being raised in the U.S for the sake of free education and how other countries have handled the same concept, "One way some of those countries have worked around this is to require college graduates who benefit from a state-funded program to serve the state or country for at least two years so they can "pay back" the country for their free education." With taxes being one of the biggest arguments against free college education, the fact that the same idea is already being executed on other parts of the world is extremely promising for a future in America where students would not have to worry about thousands of dollars of debt the moment, they get their diploma in hand. He goes on to suggest that those who fail to pay back their economy for their education would be responsible for their tuition fees. A method like this would be able to keep the public and private universities in business with the tax money generated from the careers of those who graduate from their schools, thus alleviating the day-to-day taxpayer from seeing too much of an increase in what they owe Uncle Sam every year. And even if the combination of taxpayer money with taxes from former graduates isn't enough to keep the doors open for private universities, they could always keep charging for tuition and livings costs at a reduced amount to make the possibility more feasible for the student who wishes to go to a school specializing in a specific subject. (Farrington, 2020) There is also an argument to be made that a large chunk of the tuition cost comes from what most universities charge for room and board. A system that could make this aspect lighter on student life could be just as significant as government assisted funding for students. As of 2017-2018 an average of 10,000 to 12,000 dollars is spent by a college student attending either public or private university on living and food a year. (The Scolarship System, 2020) As a student I can see myself getting on board with the idea just as long as there was some kind of guarantee that the education that I received will be impactful in a positive manner for the career I'm hoping to achieve by the end of my time in school.
Student debt is an undeniable issue in the United States with over 1.7 trillion dollars of debt accumulated across all the students who have attended college over just the past seven years, and now more and more people are calling for some kind of reform of the education system as it currently stands. Due to this issue, many politicians, journalists and students are taking it upon themselves to keep the conversation going and bring about new and realistic ideas to be able to make the financial lives of students and their parents' much easier over time. Although free education seems to be the leader in all this discussion, that does not mean that it is the best and only option available as it could end up raising taxes for the average American and cause students to take their education for granted. Instead, more feasible ideas lie in the area of students being able to pay back their country with taxes from their new career they earned with their college degree or eliminating costs of room and board for students to make the amount they pay for tuition more attainable. There are other countries around the world who have already adopted models that let their students live just a little bit easier throughout their college education, and even some universities are adopting early versions of the same ideas. Even with as great as that is, a true and significant change cannot come about without any one of these things happening on a large scale where it can be undeniable in its effectiveness for generations to come.
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