Free Public College: A Novel Solution or Economic Suicide?

As recently vocalized by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, free public college has never been a radical idea. In 1785, the second U.S. President John Adams had explicitly declared that people should take responsibility to enable the intellectual liberalization of future youths in preservation of their democracy; in Adams’s words, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.” Public education used to be tuition-free and debt-free, until the late nineteenth century when industrialization occurred. Nowadays, the pursuit of higher education no longer necessarily means scholarly development, but rather shifts to an economic need — a requirement for a financially-independent future in a society with increasingly high living costs. In parallel with the speed of industrialization and technology development, the demand for American education has been growing exponentially over the years, not only with a large inflow of students from both domestic and international spheres, but also with a heavier preference for public education. In 1965, a total of 5.92 million students were enrolled in public and private universities, with a two-to-one ratio of public to private enrollment, while in 2014, 20.21 million students are enrolled with roughly three-to-one public to private enrollment [1] [2].

Despite the fact that more people nowadays pursue education, many individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds cannot afford higher education. Nearly 29.2% of polling participants in a July 2016 Federal Reserve survey reported as being unable to attend college due to cost. To provide support to these individuals, a financial aid system in the form of loans and scholarships has been adopted a federal solution. This, however, has led to an education debt crisis: In 2016, around 40 million Americans altogether owe an aggregate outstanding student loan debt of over $1.2 trillion, a debt almost as high as mortgage debt and a major credit to the government’s budget. This is the reason why the majority of Americans support a free public college system, especially from younger generations [3] [4].

Pressured by the public to support the growing inelastic demand for education and all the while responsible for providing education as preservation of democracy, the federal or state governments may identify incentives to enlarge public education capacity. This policy of making public education free, however, has raised various concerns regarding income inequality and economic consequences of a potentially higher federal debt. Today, Alanna DeMura and Zubin Jotwani will discuss arguments in favor and against of a system of free public higher education.

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In the past year, the concept of free college tuition has been catapulted from the political fringe to the center of American political discourse–and rightly so. Obama, idealistic yet deeply rooted in the complexities of reality, catalyzed this phenomenon by unveiling the “America’s College Promise” program, which aims to make community college free in the coming years [5]. Bernie Sanders took it a step further by advocating free tuition at all public universities. And in a bid by Hillary Clinton, the standard-bearer of the centrist Democratic establishment, made to bring Bernie supporters under her tent, she embraced Sanders’s free college tuition platform. Critics of free college argue that it is unrealistic and cannot be feasibly funded. But free college is not nearly as radical as it is often made out to be. In fact, implementing free college will resolve many of the problems that plague America right now and will strive to secure the country’s future prosperity.

First, free public colleges will bolster America’s economy. If America wants to remain the world’s economic leader, it needs to make pursuing a postsecondary degree as attractive as possible. As the American economy becomes increasingly service-oriented, a highly-educated workforce has become more important. By 2020, 65% of all American jobs will require some form of a postsecondary education. Currently, however, America is not producing enough college-educated individuals to satisfy the economy’s demand for skilled workers; at current rates, America is projected to have 5 million job openings requiring postsecondary degrees by 2020 [6]. The only way to alter this current trajectory is by making college free.

Second, free public colleges will reduce income inequality. The issue of income inequality in America has been on the rise for quite some time, as the income divide between college graduates and high-school graduates continues to grow. The Gini coefficient for America (a widely-used scale to measure income inequality in which 0 represents perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality) rose from 0.34 in 1985 to 0.41 in 2013 [7]. Unlike forty years ago, where many middle-class jobs did not require anything more than a high school diploma, postsecondary degrees are now essential in attaining a comfortable middle-class lifestyle [8]. Making college free will increase the number of skilled workers, which will in turn alleviate income inequality [9].

Third, free public colleges will instantaneously reduce the burden of student debt. Student debt caused by the exorbitant college tuition fees has created major economic implications for many young Americans and for America’s economy. In 2014, the median graduating borrower from community college had student debt of $11,700. The median borrower from a four-year college had student debt of $26,500 [10]. As a result, homeownership among young adults has plummeted. Young adults are also far less likely to save, compromising their financial well-being in the future. To pay back the student debt, new generations of Americans are putting off having children, having fewer children, or not even considering them at all; the birth rate among individuals in their 20’s is at a record low [11]. Late childbirth not only affects the average health of babies but also will change the fundamental demographic distribution of America; along this path, America will face the same issues as economically-ailing Japan and many European countries that face a hardly-reversible population decline.

Of course, if public college were to be made free, a significant number of students will still have to pay expensive tuition to attend private schools. However, public school enrollment outnumbers that of private school by almost three to one [12]. Free public college will force private universities to reduce their fees in order to compete. Overall, the net impact of free public and community college tuition will be positive and large, and will better position America and the American people.

Zubin Jotwani

Mr. Jotwani presents a strong yet entirely unsustainable argument. His first point regarding an economy boost from free public college education undermines itself by a simple economic fundamental: personal incentives. While student debt can be hefty to pay back over the years, it’s an incredible motivator which pushes college students to pursue practical degrees in necessary industries where unemployment gaps exist. Whereupon unemployment gaps are filled, the economy will be able to perform at its optimal production capacity. America’s role in leading the world economically is in no way caused — or promoted — by free higher education. With disregard to the realistic job demand, students in fact enlarge income inequality. Increasing the supply of workers through free higher education does not necessarily mean that income inequality can be reduced; only if the workers fill in the right unemployment gaps will this occur. Third, Mr. Jotwani has overvalued the burden of the effect of student debt on many people’s lifestyle. Given that students pursue practical jobs that typically pay sufficiently higher salaries, a student’s debt effect on their post-college family is negligible. Many women who choose to have children later in life claim it is because of the incompatibility between a work and family life and the greater accessibility to contraceptives [13]. Women, in this case, are not waiting to pay back their student debt; they are simply working to fulfill their own desires. Lastly, Mr. Jotwani fails to mention merit-based scholarships. Widely provided by a variety of institutions, merit-based scholarships provide a pragmatic incentive for high schoolers to work hard, achieve, and earn sufficient funding to reduce student debt. While Mr. Jotwani’s argument superficially seems like a great idea, it is ultimately economically impossible and socially irresponsible to implement free community and public college.

Alanna DeMuro

Free federal public and community college may sound like an easy fix to the rising costs of college, but in reality it is not. In fact, there is strong evidence that proves free college can be detrimental to society and college students.In recent years, in response to the increased demand for education, public and community colleges are starting to rely more on tuition for funding than federal dollars. In the 2002-2003 school year, 25% of community colleges’ funding came from tuition. As of 2016, that number is now 39%. This growing reliance of public colleges on tuition signifies the federal funding limitation in responding to a growing education system. If only limited to federal funding, schools would need to find ways to maintain their budgets by reducing the number of teachers, lowering student capacity, or even taking out entire departments. It is much better to pay a little more for education than for everyone to receive a free but lesser-quality education [14].In 2012, federal, state, and local governments had spent $62.6 billion per year on education, in addition to loans, grants, tax benefits, and work-study. If public higher education was made free, the government would pay about $131.6 billion per year on education. On the surface, this additional expenditure may seem to promise a significant increase in social benefits; however, it is in fact inefficient, as the government spending covers higher education not only for people that cannot afford college, but also for people who can. Instead, these families could help subsidize for those who need more financial aid. In the long run, financial aid, to a select and deserving few, will motivate high school students to work hard in hopes of receiving scholarship money, hence promoting a stronger work ethic and motivation [15].On the other hand, if tuition becomes free and the colleges demand more money from the federal and state governments instead of finding ways to subsidize, the government would have a lot greater say of what is taught behind classroom walls. They would also be able to control faculty salaries, operating times, and other operational aspects. The actual school, county, and state would have little to no say. Under so much government control, each community would not be able to choose the course material that is more relevant to the living and economic conditions surrounding the community. Although the state government is technically able to customize the education, the federal government can, at times, become too powerful. In the past, the federal government has been distrustful in granting any amount of funding to the state government for the betterment of education. All in all, the government’s most efficient allocation of its budget is to people who need financial aid [16].Lastly, free federal public and community college can also have a negative impact on the students. Without a free public option, students may opt for more challenging and rigorous private schools with greater privately-funded financial aid. But with a free public option, the free-rider problem appears; in the long run, students would take higher education for granted, lose incentive to work hard for scholarship opportunities, and neglect keeping up with the competitive environment by which they would otherwise be surrounded. The academic competition is hence eroded away by a free public system. Without the element of competition in higher education, the chances of students dropping out or not being as successful post-graduation are extremely high. Free public colleges cannot exist in the U.S. if we want to keep the American Dream rich of competition and success. This is the Dream which speaks of the American desire to work hard and prosper off competition. It is what other countries envy and why migrants come to the U.S.. We cannot abandon these principles in exchange for free college for all [17].

It is an unworthy tradeoff to convert the status-quo higher education system to a system with free public college for all. Although a free public college system sounds like a wonderful short-term solution for a widespread education shortage problem, it is followed by many long-term negative side effects. For whatever economical, political, or philosophical reasons, free federal public and community college is an unrealistic and unfeasible goal for America.

Alanna DeMuro

Ms. Demuro’s first false claim is that students who can afford to pay full tuition should subsidize those who cannot afford tuition. Well, that is the current system in place, and it’s clearly not working. This is largely because tuition fees are so outrageously high that there are not enough rich students to go around to subsidize the poorer ones. The result is that millions of Americans who want to pursue higher education, and the millions of Americans that the U.S. economy needs to go to college, cannot and do not go to college. In essence, what Ms. Demuro is arguing for is to keep a broken system in place.

Ms. Demuro’s second argument is that if the federal and state government subsidize every public university and community college, they will try to exert power over the curriculum. She argues that the federal government will try to implement a universal curriculum such that every government-funded university and community college in the nation will offer the same courses. This claim is completely unfounded. State governments have been funding public universities since the early 1800’s, and never have they tried to exert their will over college curricula [18].

Lastly, Ms. Demuro argues that if students do not pay tuition, they do not have skin in the game and thus will be complacent and not try as hard in school. She claims that free college will take away from the American Dream because students will be less inclined to work hard. Free college will do no such thing. In fact, free college will further underpin the American Dream, which has been losing its way for years now as income inequality has become more rampant. Introducing free college will ensure that anyone who wants to pursue higher education, a well-paying job, or even the simple luxury of a suburb and a backyard will be able to do so. Free public college does not strip people of their work ethic, but rather gives people a chance to show just how hard they can work. There is nothing more American than that.
zubin-purple-cutZubin Jotwani

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