Is Free College Really a Good Thing?

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, joined by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, announced a plan to provide “free” college to all New Yorkers with a family income under $125,000. This isn’t the first time politicians have announced plans for free college, and it likely won’t be the last.

In making the announcement, Governor Cuomo noted that postsecondary education is a necessity in the current global, information economy and that many NYers graduate with “$30,000” in debt to secure a degree. “That is not fair. That is not right,” the New York Post quoted the Empire State governor as saying.

Yes, Cuomo is absolutely right that a postsecondary education is a must for all these days. And while we can get into the discussion on whether such programs end up throwing shade on community colleges and lead more individuals to pursue four-year degrees that don’t open many doors in that information economy, I’ll leave the fight over what “postsecondary education” means for a future post.

Instead, dear ol’ Eduflack wants to take issue with the notion that it isn’t right or fair that individuals take on student debt obtaining a four-year degree. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average graduate of a four-year college (excluding the for-profits) leaves school with $30,100 in debt.  That works out to student loan payments of about $300 a month for the average college graduate.

That’s less than the monthly payment on an average car loan the recent graduate is likely paying. It is likely less than the average rent. And unlike the car and the rent, it is an asset that the graduate will carry with them throughout his or her life.

We can often forget that when we make things “free,” particularly things that one used to pay for, we reduce the perceived value of the item. When it is free, we don’t see to care as much about what we received. It was free, after all, so it is no biggie if we lose it, forget about it, or fail to use it.

When we pay for something, we see value. With a college education, we are forced to make choices. What postsecondary path is of most interest to us. What areas do we have the most skill. Where do we see potential careers. Are we willing to do the work necessary to turn our investment into a tangible product (our degree)?

When we take out loans, take on jobs, or even have families who can pay the tuition, we are less likely to seek that degree in underwater basketweaving and instead choose paths that are aligned with our interests, talents, and future goals. And that is a good thing.

Instead of free college, why not instead focus on college affordability? Why not ask if so many of those universities need the ever-growing endowments they have? Why not ask how colleges and universities are reducing costs to their students, and not just their operating costs? Why not ask when a two-year degree may make far more sense than a four-year degree? Why not ask whether it makes sense for that “free” college to essentially go to pay for remediation? Why not ask how we ensure it takes students four years, and not six or seven, to earn a four-year degree? Why not ask how we ensure college focuses on the student, and not the institution? Why not ask how we ensure a college education is about what is learned, and not just what is taught? Why not?

After World War II, about 5 percent of Americans held a college degree. Today, we are up to about 40 percent. Are those millions and millions of Americans chumps for personally sacrificing, taking on debt, and gaining college degrees when they could have just waited around for someone to give it to them for free?

I don’t mean to be the skunk at the garden party, but if we think free college is the answer to all that ails us, we are going to be severely disappointed. Not only does free college diminish the value of a postsecondary degree, but it also begins to draw further distinctions between where one earned that degree. How long before employers begin asking whether that free degree from the state college is as valuable as the paid-for degree from the private college up on the hill?

Efforts to bring equity to postsecondary education through free college could end up bringing a whole new era of inequity to the discussion.

 

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