Free College

In today’s society, a college degree is now seen as the equivalent to a high school diploma. If an individual is striving for a good paying job and the ability to live comfortably, looking to higher education is the first step. The next step for an individual is financing their education, which can be extremely difficult for many.

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Many prospective students seeking a college degree struggle to afford to pay college tuition. In the last 30 years college tuition has more than doubled (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). High college tuition costs are the major reason why students are unable to attend school, are forced to drop out, or are left with massive amounts of loan debt. Since a college degree is somewhat essential in our society, and tuition is the main burden of a student when trying to obtain a degree, a great notion is to make college tuition free.

From personal experience, I know that college tuition can be the deciding factor on where a prospective student ends up going to school. For years my top two schools were the University of Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University. UCONN is my mother’s alma mater, and Connecticut is where my family is originally from. I chose Penn State because they offered a great program for my major that would benefit me in the future. Being an out-of-state student, I already knew the tuition costs would be massive. But when my senior year came around in 2017 and it was time to start applying to schools, reality hit. UCONN’s tuition rate (for an out-of-state student) alone was close to $40,000.

Which is definitely an outrageous price. Within the last five years, UCONN’s tuition and fees for out-of-state students have grown at an average yearly rate of 6.2% (College Factual). Because of these costs, I did not even bother applying to UCONN because I knew even financial aid would not cover the whole cost. However, I did apply and get accepted into Penn State’s nursing program. So, unfortunately, when I got my financial aid package back I was crushed to find out I was still going to have to pay a massive amount of money out of pocket. Luckily, I had multiple fallback options. I ended up choosing to attend the University of South Carolina because they offered a good nursing program and it was in-state.

Being an in-state student, tuition was $12,618 for the 2018-2019 year (University of South Carolina, 2018), which is almost three times less if I were to go to Penn State or UCONN. This same experience happened to a close friend of mine. She was accepted into her dream school, Spelman College, but because of high tuition costs she also ended up going to the University of South Carolina. This also shows all type of colleges (public, private, HBCUs, etc.) are forcing students to pay high tuition costs or find an alternative.

As somebody who is currently in college, I believe students should have an equal opportunity to get a college degree. Free college tuition could have a major impact on students, including me. Students should not have to worry about finding a job to pay their tuition or having to burden their families with the costs, regardless of their socioeconomic background. If they have the ability to succeed in school, then doing well in their classes should be students’ only concern. If public high schools are free for all, then why are colleges not the same? The cost of attending a four-year college has increased by 1,122 percent since 1978 (Quandt). And with the national tuition rate increasing each year, there is no telling what the numbers will look like in the next decade if changes do not take place. The United States is among the top wealthiest countries in the world. I’m sure we can find a way to able our college students to attend school for free.

In the previous presidential election and other political conversations, there has been a push for free college. In 2015, Senator Bernie Sander wrote an opinion editorial for The Washington Post while running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders wrote about how rising college costs are making it harder and harder for young Americans to get the education they desire and need. He describes how in 1978, it was possible to earn enough money to pay for a year of tuition by working a minimum wage summer job. Now it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover a year’s worth of tuition (Sanders). Sanders also makes the claim that education is essential for our nation since “we live a highly competitive, global economy, and if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated workforce in the world” (Sanders). This supports the idea that every young person should be able to go to college if they desire without going into massive amounts of debt.

In countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, and Mexico, public universities are tuition free. Tuition in Germany is also free, but not just for Germans or Europeans, but for international students as well. More than 4,600 U.S. students are enrolled at German universities (Strasser). And with American universities increasing tuition each year, German schools have seen a 20% increase in American enrollment over the past three years (Strasser). I suppose Germany and other countries with free tuition see the value with individuals being able to obtain degrees. Higher education allows young individuals to gain greater knowledge and skills that are useful in our society. Remember, these individuals are going to be future doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers–basically the ones who are going to determine the success of our future society. These countries have set the example, and America should if we wish for a prospering future society.

Sandra Featherman describes in her book, Higher Education at Risk : Strategies to Improve Outcomes, Reduce Tuition, and Stay Competitive in a Disruptive Environment, how higher education needs to remain accessible and affordable for prospective students. The author believes this to be important considering today higher institutions are now facing competition from technology start-up companies, foreign universities, and others. Featherman states that colleges are going to have to prepare for “new forms of competition for students, rising costs that many prospective students will no longer be able to afford, declining public support, increased federal accountability demands, etc.” Featherman further explores the idea of increasing technology industry in her book, “In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.” In her opinion colleges in the U.S. need to lower their costs if they want students enrolling in the future. If not, they will turn to alternative options. Which was partly discussed in the previous paragraph–how students are already turning to European countries to obtain a college degree.

States such as, New York, Oregon, and Tennessee have embraced the idea of free tuition and believe the first stage should start with community colleges. However, there is still an argument against free college tuition, saying it is not a good economic endeavor. An economics professor at Ohio University, Richard Vedder, argues that free college tuition could raise already “scandalously high” dropout rates. Recent statistics have shown that 47% of community colleges enrollees drop out of school, which is far more than the 27% who graduate. Also, the less students pay towards the cost of tuition, completion rates fall (Vedder). Not everyone finishes school, and with the concept of free tuition, someone still has to pay the cost.

For example, the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, supported the idea of free tuition, but also incited the idea of the project being financed by New Jersey’s affluent taxpayers. This would cause their income tax to go up to 10.75% from 8.97% and they would see an increase in sale tax if college tuition was free (Vedder). Deciding who is going to have to pay for this free tuition idea is the most crippling side of the argument, considering most Americans do not want to have to pay more taxes. Nevertheless, this does not completely defend the argument of free tuition. If Americans are worried about “wasting money” than maybe the best option is to given assistance to the individual students, not the universities. Have it based largely on financial need and the students’ projected academic success. Others should not be negatively affected by the “maybes” of some. Furthermore, I’m sure with some planning the federal government can find a way to balance the cost of free tuition so that it does not drastically affect taxpayers, even if that planning takes some years.

The National Education Association views college as becoming a necessity, not a luxury. In a piece written by the NEA, they opened it with the question, “If college is essential for building a career and being a full participant in our democracy as high school once was, shouldn’t be free, paid for by public dollars, and treated as a right of all members of our country?” The NEA states that a study has shown that federal spending on public colleges is better economically than a similar sized tax cut or similar spending on roads and bridges (Page). An opposing argument for free college tuition it that schools would have an increase in student enrollment but would be bring in less money, meaning hundreds of faculty and staff would be fired. The NEA disproved this belief. In Tennessee, where they have already started the free community college project, they are busy hiring new faculty to teach the classes for all of the new incoming students seeking a now obtainable college degree (Page).

Other states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Rhode Island, have also rolled out statewide free community college programs (Dickler). Hopefully others will follow in this direction also. In 2017, New York became the first state in the U.S. to cover four years of tuition without being tied to academic performance. With the state’s Excelsior scholarships, the only requirements are that students have to be NY residents and plan to live and work in New York following graduation for at least as long as the time they participate in the scholarship program (Dickler). This could be seen as beneficial to the state, considering those students would be contributing to New York’s economy once they graduate. The student loan debt has shot up over 200 percent since 2006 and now exceeds $1.5 trillion. Which is more than the national credit card and auto loan debt (Lorin). Many politicians, along with Bernie Sanders, have been addressing the student debt crisis, calling it a “national emergency”.

In March 2019, President Donald Trump addressed the nation saying, “I’m going to work to fix it because it (student loan debt) because it’s outrageous what’s happening. We’re going to work on that very soon” (NBC News). Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act has been endorsed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker. The $47 billion plan would eliminate tuition at public colleges, lower interest rates on student loans, and allow students to refinance their existing loans (Gregorian). Other politicians have proposed similar ideas to fight student loan debt. Beto O’Rourke supports the idea of tuition-free community colleges, “you want to go to community college, you go without paying a single dime.” Senator Cory Booker proposed creating a $1,000 savings account for every baby born in the U.S. Another $2,00 a year would be added to account (depending on the family’s income), which the child can access at 18 for higher education payments (Gregorian).

House of Representative Tulsi Gabbard supports the idea of free college tuition for students from families earning $125,000 or less (Gregorian). These politicians’ proposals show that Americans want a change in college tuitions. And these are just a few examples of how the change in high education can take place. My generation is going to become the next group of doctors, nursing, lawyers, politicians, and teachers. But the only way for us to achieve these positions is with a college degree. Every young American should be given the opportunity to go to college if they desire, regardless of their family’s economic background and without leaving with massive amounts of debt. In the past, Americans could graduate from high school and get a decent-paying job with benefits, while being able to buy a house and provide for their families. But that was when American had a large manufacturing sector that offered numerous jobs for those without college degrees.

Our society and the economy have greatly shifted since then with all this technology. Now higher education is the foundation to success. I’m sure all of America wants a flourishing and well-educated workforce, that has the ability to compete with the rest of the world’s economies. Other countries have already taken the initiative with free higher education, so why not the United States too. This nation likes to be ahead of the curve in everything else, so why not with education also?

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