ASCH: Despite its good intentions, free college for all is terrible public policy

Financial resources should instead be used to decrease community college expenses

While the 2016 Presidential race is over, many key policies brought to the forefront by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., are still being debated. However, one issue which has recently seen a lot of progress is the move to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Progress in bringing this issue to the mainstream has been made by former Secretary of State and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who adopted free college for the middle class in her platform, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing similar legislation into law in New York. Supporters of this policy believe that a college degree should be treated today the same as a high-school diploma was in previous decades. This seems like an attractive solution to many who seek to make college more affordable and to ensure that everyone has a shot at a better future, but unfortunately this is not the case. Though the proponents of this policy have good intentions, free college for all actually hurts lower-income students, while doing nothing to address a very serious public policy problem — maintaining a well-trained workforce. 

One major issue with free public colleges is the cost. Only 33 percent of adults have at least an undergraduate degree. This is by no means a majority of Americans, so it is hard to justify raising taxes on everyone else if only some people will choose to go to college. And while it is certainly true that the current cost of college is out of control, studies show that students do better in school when they have to pay for their education. Free college proposals would also be a huge give away to upper middle-class students who are most likely to take advantage of this program. When upper middle-class students take advantage of this new program, they will crowd out the lower income students that this policy was meant to help. By attracting more of these upper middle-class students, free college would also inadvertently decimate private colleges by starving them of students, even though it is these institutions which generally offer better financial aid. 

While it is clear these proposals do a lot more to help upper middle-class families than lower-income students, it also does not address many issues in the college debt crisis. One serious problem is that over 40 percent of millennial-headed households who have only completed some college education are currently saddled with college debt. This can be partially explained by America’s low college preparedness levels out of high school, but also by how there is a narrative in our country that the only way to get ahead is to get a college degree. Instead of making college free, we should create more avenues for success for people who realize college is not the right fit for them 

To remedy this problem and to ensure that the United States retains a highly skilled workforce, community colleges should be free. By making them free, individuals could take remedial courses after high school if they do not feel prepared for college. This also allows for a time of exploration and an opportunity to discover what their strengths, without taking out loans to go to a four-year university. After some time at a community college, students can choose whether not to go to college or to transfer to a four-year university. If they decide not to go, community colleges have the potential to host job training and technical training programs to prepare a highly-skilled workforce for the jobs of the future. However, if students do choose to attend a four-year university, it is important that policymakers also address sky-high tuitions by reducing administrative costs and increasing state funding. By making community colleges free, while also reducing the cost of four-year universities, we are providing students with multiple pathways toward reaching a middle class life. 

After reviewing the evidence, it is clear that free college for all would not solve the current problems with higher education. Other countries like Norway have free college, but children of parents who did not go to college in Norway are just as unlikely to attend college as in America, so it is clear that is not the answer. Community colleges are the answer to create a highly-skilled workforce. We can see the success of this policy in states like Tennessee and Rhode Island. Both states have passed laws making community college free because they understand the necessity of maintaining a highly-trained workforce. The rest of the country should follow their lead by making community colleges free — it will do far more good for far more people than free public colleges. 

Jacob Asch is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.asch@cavalierdaily.com

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