Should College Be Free? Pros and Cons (According to Experts)

When it comes to the topic of college tuition, everyone seems to have an opinion. Some people feel that college should be free for all, while others think that students should be responsible for paying their own way.

So which side is right? Should college be free? That’s a complicated question with no easy answer.

Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the argument made by experts.

Bruce Hanson

Bruce Hanson

Education Wellness Expert | CEO and Founder, First Choice Admissions

Making tuition free would simply be too expensive to be practical

Of course, we’ve had free college in the U.S. before. Except we called it the G.I. Bill. It provided free tuition (enough to cover even fancy Ivy League schools) and a living stipend for veterans returning from WWII. While it wasn’t perfect, it did have some striking successes.

By 1947 half of all college graduates were veterans going to school on the GI Bill. By 1950 we had doubled the number of college graduates in the country.

We graduated about 67 thousand doctors, 450 thousand engineers, 240 thousand teachers and cranked out three supreme court justices, three presidents, 14 Nobel prize winners, and 24 Pulitzer prize winners.

The GI Bill basically created a dramatic expansion of the middle class almost overnight, which fueled the economic expansion of the 50s and 60s.

It also provided a highly educated workforce as the United States conquered massive technological challenges like landing a man on the moon and creating the first computers.

But could free tuition work today? As a guy with a fancy MBA from Wharton, I generally need to be persuaded by numbers. And my first reaction was that making tuition free would simply be too expensive to be practical.

Then I read a 2019 report authored by David Deming at the Harvard Kennedy School. He calculated that the cost to make all two and four-year public universities and colleges tuition-free would cost about $80 billion dollars a year. Yup — that’s kind of what I thought. A really big number!

But for context, he pointed out that we already spend about $40 billion a year just on the federal level to assist with college costs. And that doesn’t include what the states kick in. So we’re really talking about finding an additional $40 billion. Yup — still a really big number!

Now it’s important to understand he’s not talking about making college ‘free’ — just the tuition part free and just at public institutions. But we still have to find $40 billion.

Here’s some more context. The 2022 federal budget is about $6 Trillion. That $40 billion we’re talking about is roughly six-tenths of one percent of that budget. Even if Demig is off by a factor of two, it’s still about 1% of the budget.

Is it worth dedicating 1% of our federal budget to make higher education tuition free at public two and four-year schools? I think it’s certainly worth a discussion.

We’d probably get a bunch of that money back as the person who is working for $18 bucks an hour making burritos at Chipotle gets a college degree and lands a job making $75k a year marketing for Chipotle — and pays more in taxes.

I think the numbers can work. And I think our own grand experiment with the GI Bill after WWII shows there are powerful upsides for our society and our economy. It’s probably even more important today as an educated workforce is essential to compete on a global scale with other countries.

Before I go, I think it’s also important to point out that a college degree isn’t the right choice for everyone. And that’s a good thing! Because we absolutely needed skilled folks who know how to wire and plumb a building or maintain the engines on aircraft.

Those skills are often taught in community colleges, and there are many programs that exist that make community colleges very affordable and sometimes free. I think allowing the same access to college degrees would be a very good thing.

Denise Thomas

Denise Thomas

College Coach and Author | Founder, Get Ahead Of The Class

The short answer is “No”

There is no such thing as free

Someone has to pay for it. That someone is the tax payors.

In countries where college is “free,” the average citizen pays an additional $20,000 per year in taxes, every year, regardless of if they have children or not.

Americans who say they would be happy to do that are lying to themselves. If they truly believed they could so easily give up an additional $20,000 of their income every year of their working life, they wouldn’t be complaining about the high cost of college.

$20k per year from age 22 to 67 is $900,000. And that’s not the investment value.

Not everyone should get a college degree

That’s part of the problem today. “We” have been telling kids for decades that having a college degree is essential to their success in life. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The trades require just as much skill, cost less to acquire, and have the potential to make the same income as someone with the average degree.

The “we” in this statement, I believe, initially came from pricey colleges. Then, having an excess of students with no idea of their career goals needed to invent degree programs with zero employment potential.

This is why we have so many college-educated baristas and retail workers, and college dropouts.

The government hasn’t produced quality results

Since when has the government run and paid for education to produce quality results? If we allow the department of education to get its hands on higher ed, then college will be nothing short of high school personified.

No one values anything that is free

Free college would have a much larger number of dropouts.

Much like public high schools, in order to rectify this, colleges would have to “dumb down” (make easier) the coursework so that more students would stay in and graduate.

Anne Glass

Anne Glass

Education Specialist and Head of School, MUSE Academy

Making college free devalues college institutions

Although free college is something that a lot of people might advocate for, I feel that it shouldn’t be.

I understand the reasoning behind this desire, mainly because it helps a lot of students access a higher education who otherwise might not be able to. I do like the inclusivity part of free education, but I believe that making college free devalues college institutions.

Making higher education free over time could have the potential to make it less desirable and also less of a necessity.

If everyone has the ability to go to college, then it becomes less of an importance. This would also make trying to find a job much more difficult as there would be an increase in qualified candidates.

The job market is already difficult enough to navigate, and having an increase in competition makes it even tougher to get your dream job.

I also find that many people don’t appreciate things as much when they don’t have to work hard to get it. When you don’t have to pay for college, you might feel you don’t need to work as hard to keep your place.

Free higher education gives more people the opportunity to not value it as much and, therefore, just scrape by.

I do, however, believe that everyone should have the ability to go to college without financial problems being the biggest reason they can’t attend.

It should therefore be cheaper, and there should also be more scholarships and grants available to a wider range of people. Doing so would relieve a lot of financial pressure on students, as well as make it easier for them to be able to pay off the debt later in life.

AJ Silberman-Moffitt

AJ Silberman-Moffitt

Senior Editor, Tandem

As a college graduate that took out thousands of dollars in student loans when I was in school, I can understand why many are upset by the rising costs of higher education.

Due to these costs, the question will often come up, “Should college be free?” I believe there are pros and cons to free education.

Pros of free education

A more educated society

Many more people would be able to get college degrees, as the cost would not be such a significant determining factor.

Of course, there will still be childcare and other obstacles that could prevent someone from getting a degree, but at least the cost would not be as high a hindrance.

Society and the economy would benefit

Those who are educated can make better, more informed decisions. Then, not having debt related to schooling will enable people to save money instead of spending their funds paying back loans.

Less inequality

The inequality gap will be made smaller. Now those in lower income brackets or those who are minorities that might previously not have had access to continued education would be able to get advanced training.

Lower unemployment

Theoretically, if more people obtained degrees, this should result in a lower unemployment rate. Consequently, lower unemployment is better for the economy, as it puts less stress on the taxpayers and on the government.

Cons of free education

Finding qualified instructors

It might be challenging to find and retain highly qualified instructors. Though some colleges would be free, there would still be a prevalent private sector.

Related: 50+ Qualities of a Good Teacher

These private schools will have more funding to attract the best teachers to work for them instead of these instructors working at an institution that offers cost-free degrees.

Taxpayers would ultimately bear the burden

Taxpayers would be responsible for bearing the responsibility of the educational system, as opposed to only the students who utilize the services of colleges being the ones that pay for it.

Not everyone benefits from a college education

Some people work better at jobs that are very important, but these do not require you to learn in a typical classroom setting. In fact, many jobs are integral to a country functioning properly.

From landscapers to waste technicians to air conditioning repair, these jobs are integral even though they do not require college degrees.

The cost of college extends far beyond tuition

There is also the cost of books or other learning materials, housing, childcare, food, and more. Even if tuition was free, how would these other expenses be paid?

There are undoubtedly many pros but also some cons to college being free. Even so, it’s certainly worth looking into these pros and cons to find ways to have a more educated, more productive society.

Dennis Shirshikov

Dennis Shirshikov

Head of Content, Awning

College should not be free — it should be interest-free

College should not be free because that leaves the cost distributed among all the taxpayers. Things that are billed as free often get very expensive quickly and result in a high amount of inefficiency.

There is also the consideration that the governing body that sends those taxes to pay for the schools will have a large amount of leverage over what the schools do, what they teach, and more.

Imagine our public school system and its rules spreading to Universities.

While schools should not be free, we should continue to give people loans to attend schools; however, those loans should be interest-free.

There is no reason why a loan that cannot be canceled through bankruptcy should have any interest. In fact, it is in the best interest of the government and the student to make the loan interest-free.

Interest-free financing for education would increase the income of borrowers and allow them to spend more—higher spending results in more growth and a larger tax base.

So don’t make school free and hide the cost into a budget item. Instead, keep it costly, make it financeable, and make it interest-free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Would free college benefit all students equally?

The question of whether free college would benefit all students equally is a complex one that requires careful consideration. While it’s true that free college could provide a number of benefits to many students, it’s important to recognize that not all students have the same needs and challenges.

For instance, students from low-income backgrounds who are struggling to afford college tuition and fees would likely see a significant benefit from free college. Without the burden of these costs, they may be more able to attend college, pursue degrees, and ultimately secure higher-paying jobs.

However, students from more affluent backgrounds who may not be struggling to pay for college might not see as much of a benefit from free college. Additionally, students who are already high-achievers and are able to secure scholarships or other forms of financial aid may not need the additional support that free college could provide.

In short, while free college could be a valuable tool for many students, it may not be a panacea that benefits all students equally. It’s important to carefully consider the unique needs and challenges faced by different student populations in order to determine whether free college would truly be an equitable solution.

How does free education improve society?

Free education has a transformative power that can benefit society in many ways. By providing education to everyone, regardless of their financial situation, we can create a more just and equal society.

Here are some of the key benefits of free education:

Promotes equality and reduces the wealth gap: Education is often seen as a luxury for those who can’t afford it. When education is free, everyone has equal access to quality education. This can help to level the playing field and reduce the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. It also ensures that people are not excluded from pursuing their goals and dreams based on their financial background.

Leads to higher levels of education and skill development: Free education can lead to higher levels of education and skill development. When education is affordable and accessible, more people can pursue higher education, which can lead to a more educated and skilled workforce. This can in turn lead to higher levels of productivity, innovation, and economic growth.

Improves social mobility: Education is a key driver of social mobility. When education is free, people from all backgrounds have the opportunity to pursue their goals and dreams. This can help to break down social barriers and create a more mobile society, where individuals can move up the social ladder based on their abilities and achievements, rather than their economic background.

Promotes a more informed and engaged citizenry: Education can help to promote critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and a better understanding of the world. This can lead to a more informed and engaged citizenry, who are better equipped to participate in democracy and make informed decisions. Education can also help to promote social cohesion and reduce social divisions by fostering a sense of shared values and understanding.

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