Free College: Creeping Socialism or an Idea Long Overdue?

Over the last 30 years, the United States has battled a looming crisis in higher education. The cost of attending college has increased by 538 percent since 1985. Many now have crippling student loan debt, while others feel that college is simply not an option.

This has many Americans questioning our post-secondary educational system and asking what can be done to ensure college affordability and accessibility to all Americans. One option is tuition-free public universities.

International precedents

A number of countries already offer a free college education in one form or another. Here’s how they do it:

In Germany, enrollment rates are lower than in the U.S. due to Germany’s tiered education system, which funnels many students into skills-based apprenticeship programs. In addition, colleges have few of the frills expected at American universities. An education-only centered system devoid of most extracurricular activities and with limited funding for research keeps the cost of each pupil’s entire undergraduate education to only $32,000.

In Sweden, students graduate with relatively high student loan debt — an average of $19,000 compared to $24,800 for American borrowers — despite tuition-free institutions. This debt is largely accrued to cover living expenses. Swedes expect college-age students to be independent adults who do not rely on their parents for financial assistance. With low, government-set interest rates and subsidies, however, Swedish borrowers do not face the same level of financial burden that American students face.

In Denmark, not only is college free, the government guarantees a six-year, $900 per month living expenses allowance to each student not living with their parents. This is the most liberal educational system in the world, one modeled on the social-liberal democracy platform that Nordic states are famous for and paid for by one of the highest tax rates in the world.

Proposed plans

Last year, President Barack Obama proposed the America’s College Promise Act, forcing politicians and policymakers to take a serious look at providing free college nationwide. The plan calls for the federal government to pay 75 percent of all community college fees and asks states to pick up the remaining 25 percent. This push has spurred democratic presidential candidates to outline their own higher-ed funding plans. 

Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act is perhaps the most wide-reaching, radical plan for education reform seen of late. The plan calls for tuition-free access to both community colleges and four-year public colleges and universities. It would also cut loan interest rates and allow current debtors to refinance.

Political roadblocks

The total cost of providing tuition-free public college, at both community college and four-year institutions, would be approximately $62.6 billion annually. The government already spends $69 billion on tax breaks, Pell grants, work-study and other student aid programs. 

No one is suggesting we redirect this aid toward a free program — lower income students would have very little access to prestigious, private universities without this help — but the price tag of a free system is not as insurmountable as some think.

The political story is more contentious. America’s College Promise Act has been floating around Congress for a year now. The plan has attracted limited, partisan backing. Even a comparatively innocuous attempt by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to allow debtors to refinance student loans at current rates failed to garner support. More politically promising are state-initiated programs.

State initiatives

Obama’s free college plan is based in part on the success of similar programs in Tennessee. The state’s Knox Achieves program began in 2008 as a privately funded plan to bridge the gap between available aid and community college fees. This initiative ran for seven years, providing mentorship and grants to students from 23 counties. 

Piggybacking on the success of Knox Achieves, the Tennessee Promise program covers the tuition gap for an associate’s degree for qualifying students statewide. Eligibility requires a student to complete eight hours of community service each semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA and remain enrolled full-time.

Tennessee isn’t the only state pioneering free college options. Oregon recently announced a similar initiative, while Minnesota has a pilot program to fund a smattering of technical college programs. Eleven other states proposed free college legislation in 2015.

Critics and critiques

Even if tuition-free college is a political and financial possibility in the United States, many question whether it is the right way to ensure affordability and access to higher education.

Some critics ask whether a college degree is really necessary for career success. They point to systems like Germany, where apprenticeship programs pay young people to learn the specific skills needed in industry and guarantee them high-paying jobs after training. 

In recent years, too, Americans are seeing a slight shift toward skills-based apprenticeships and away from college degrees. Graduates of four-month coding boot camps, for example, can expect starting salaries of between $70,000 and $100,000. The Thiel Fellowship actually pays young people not to go to college, encouraging them to gain real world, entrepreneurial experience instead.

Critics also question the validity of college fees independent of who is paying them. A comprehensive plan for reform, they reason, should be a move toward affordable education on the supply side. In their opinion, injecting greater sums of ill-spent tax dollars into a broken system will only bolster bureaucratic inefficiencies.

These critics often argue that expanded access to easy government money through grants and even loans have allowed higher education budgets to balloon unchecked. Statistics show a significant increase in administrative costs compared to teaching costs and unnecessary spending on non-essential facilities, though cuts in state spending have contributed to college cost price surges. 

Reformers whose main concern is greater access for the least well-off Americans point out that a free system may benefit wealthier households more than the poor. This has been the number one critique of Tennessee’s Promise program. The initiative was funded through a state lottery previously reserved for the HOPE scholarship program, which provides grants for four years of enrollment at a public college or university for those in greatest financial need.

Finally, everyone recognizes that tuition-free is simply not the same as free. For students who are struggling to attend college, reducing the costs of tuition might not be enough. Living expenses alone — not to mention childcare, healthcare and other miscellaneous costs — make attending college full-time impractical for many lower-income students. Without addressing these barriers to entry, a free-tuition plan hardly begins to offer accessibility to higher education.

Alternatives to subsidized college 

FreeCollegeCreepingSocialismorIdeaLongOverdue_640x359Though educational innovation has not been as widespread or quick to develop as we might hope, several private systems are attempting to answer the public’s cry for affordable, accessible higher education.

An increasing number of schools are offering free tuition and sometimes even room and board for enrolled students. The payment schemes range from grants supported by generous donations to on-campus, work-based programs to service schools such CUNY’s Teachers Academy, which requires a graduate to work in the New York City public school system for two years after graduation.

Free online education is also becoming popular through initiatives like Kahn Academy, Lynda.com and digital classes from top universities. These programs often issue completion certificates and are pushing to become more recognized as institutions of learning. MIT is piloting a program to allow students in some fields to complete most of their coursework online for free, attending on-campus, paid classes for only one semester.

There are a number of significant options being considered at this time, and it will be very interesting to see the upcoming progress as we seek to improve the education level of our nation.

—The Alternative Daily

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