Reducing the cost of higher education was among the most popular policy concerns during the 2016 presidential primary season, and it’s obvious why. Roughly 43 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion in student debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve, and the average graduate now leaves campus owing approximately $37,000. Politicians who propose making higher education either free or debt-free are therefore singing to a very large and collectively powerful choir.
But are they right? Yes, we are facing a student-debt crisis, which serves to delay borrowers’ financial maturation and thus stifle economic activity. Fifty-two percent of young adults with student debt say the burden has affected their ability to buy a car, according to a 2016 survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, while 55% report that it has hampered their ability to purchase a home and 62% say it has forced them to delay saving for retirement. But the federal government already faces a $590 billion budget deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and news reports indicate that 16 states are currently spending above their means, as well.
So who is supposed to foot the bill for all of this free education? And is it fair to force older taxpayers to pay to educate the young after shouldering their own educational burden without such assistance?
Given the complexity of this issue and the many competing interests it brings to bear, we invited a panel of experts on student loans, educational administration, political science and public policy to weigh in. We asked them a single simple question – “should college be free?” – and received insightful, nuanced responses providing analysis from diverse perspectives. You can check out all of the commentary – including 4 Yes votes, 14 Nos and 2 Not Sures – below. And make sure to share your thoughts on the subject in the Comments section, too!
Why College Should Be Free
- "I would make college free for those who wish to pursue a degree in teaching. However, the individual would have to commit to teach in a high poverty school for 3-5 years in order to provide a return on the investment.
I would make college free for students who demonstrated a significant financial need. However, the students must demonstrate through a solid high school performance that they were college and career ready."
Terry Holliday // Board Chairman, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
- "Our citizens cannot expect future prosperity without having an open door to higher education. Community colleges provide that door, and free community college tuition is the most secure way to keep it wide open. We hail all federal, state and local actions that would turn this vision into reality. And we are encouraged that in an increasing number of places, that is in fact the case."
David S. Baime // Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of Community Colleges
- "Despite the Clinton campaign’s post-primary drift leftward on the issue of college affordability, her current proposal falls short of the systemic reform that the times demand. Universally free public higher education with no means-testing whatsoever ought to be on the table. ...
Under a truly universal system, the number of wealthy students the system would be 'wasting' money on pales in comparison to the amount we waste on the administrative costs and hurdles involved in need-verification. Even with an assumption that some wealthy people would benefit, the advantages of eliminating financial means-testing would still overwhelmingly fall to the working and middle classes."
Adrianna Kezar & Tom DePaola // Researchers in Higher Education, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern Carolina
- "Paying for college with debt increases economic inequality. Students that graduate without debt reap great economic benefit from a higher education because they get all of the rewards of pursuing a higher education with none of the risks associated with the debt or any bad choices they might make. For everyone else – an ever-increasing share of those going to college – it is a crap-shoot. ... If we want to make America stronger together (or greater again, depending on your political persuasion), we must make higher education free again."
David A. Bergeron // Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Ask the Experts
Why College Should Not Be Free
- "The more the government provides the funding for college, the less reason school administrators have to minimize costs. For many years, college tuition and related expenses have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation, and that’s largely due to the fact that government has been heavily subsidizing attendance. If college were 'free' administrators would have even less reason to keep expenditures down."
George Leef // Director of Research, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
- "While I don’t believe that college should be free, I do believe that state leaders would be wise to make it very affordable for their citizens. The fact is an educated citizenry is the number one most important factor in a state’s economic viability. The easiest way for policymakers to address this problem within their state is to look hard at their community college systems."
Mary Scott Hunter // President Pro Tem, Alabama Department of Education
- "There’s no evidence that cheapening college yields anything other than a cheapened college experience. Imperfect, to be sure, but market forces currently provide information about the value of a college education. An expensive four-year degree often signals an education earned from a prestigious institution where great value is placed on what was learned there; conversely, a bargain-priced degree from a cut-rate campus commands little in terms of respect, signals inferior learning, and has comparatively lesser value in the marketplace."
Gregory J. Cizek, Ph.D. // Guy B. Phillips Distinguished Professor of Educational Measurement and Evaluation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- "Advocates of 'college for free' often couch their arguments in social justice terms, arguing that until the most disadvantaged in our society have the same access to college as the most advantaged, equality is not possible. While I agree with this sentiment, making college free works against this very ideal, as it makes it possible for higher-income students to draw from the same (limited) pot of subsidies as low-income students, thus reducing the total amount of money available to help those who need it most."
Carrie B. Kisker, Ph.D. // Director, Center for the Study of Community Colleges
Ask the Experts
On The Fence
- "Certainly, the current state of affairs is out of whack: Far too many students are burdened by loans that at best seem unfair, and at worst down right outrageous and unacceptable. But I am not that concerned about those students incurring such debt due to their own choice to attend elite private institutions and by-pass local and other state colleges and universities across the country. ... Attending such a school, to my mind, is somewhat analogous to choosing to dine at a very expensive restaurant — it’s your choice, and you decide whether it is worth the price."
Ron Scapp // Founding Director, Graduate Program in Urban and Multicultural Education, College of Mount Saint Vincent
- “As long as we have this tuition crisis, the most important thing we can do is teach all students how to be proactive, self-directed learners who can take advantage of all the learning resources that come their way. Our current system does not do a good enough job of helping students accomplish this. Too many students enter college not knowing how to take advantage of all the resources that are already provided, and as a result, they don’t graduate.”
Dale J. Stephens // Founder & CEO, UnCollege.org
Ask the Experts
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