Opinion: Free College Isn’t the Answer

In the United States, students receive financial aid for college through grants, scholarships, loans and work-study funds. Through these benefits, most students are able to finance their college tuition so long as they pay off their loans later on. On average, a graduate of the class of 2015 is a little more than $35,000 in debt, and will pay back this debt over the course of about 21 years. Given these amazing figures, it is not surprising that politicians have entertained the idea of and advocated for free college tuition. As a student at an expensive institution like Boston College, it might be surprising that I am wholeheartedly opposed to the idea of free college.

In an attempt to make American workers the most competitive in a global economy, politicians have voiced their support of plans to make four-year, public colleges free for all students. These representatives argue that, in order to get the best-educated workforce possible, the United States must make college affordable.

At a very elementary level, this issue is about cost, but money is not the only obstacle when it comes to pursuing higher education. The government must attend to factors other than money, such as familial support and social preparation, if they want to attain the goal of having the best educated workforce. When it comes down to it, this issue is about a structural flaw.

In order to increase the number of people pursuing higher education, we must first begin by strengthening our country’s primary education system. In the United States, primary and secondary schools are funded at the local level, and, because of this, there is a lot of variance in educational standards across the nation. The quality of a person’s initial education reflects the community that they were brought up in; if a person grows up in a wealthy suburb, they will likely be better educated than their lower-income counterparts. If primary education were funded on a national level, each child would receive essentially the same high quality teaching, laying the foundation for their future academic success.

In addition to this strengthening of a child’s basic educational skills, we must also improve the support system for first-generation and low-income students. Only 13 percent of children whose parents did not attend college attend themselves. In a sense, there is a damaging cycle at work, assuring that somebody whose parents did not receive a college education does not receive one themselves. This uneducated person goes on to be a parent to a child, who does not pursue higher education because their parents didn’t, and so on.

The process of applying to college and navigating its complexities is difficult enough as it is, and nearly impossible for somebody who has never meddled in the realm of higher education before. If a person is first-generation and has nobody at home to help them apply to college or succeed in school, they have less of an incentive to even try. Implementation of more organizations that focus on steering inexperienced students and their families through the college system is imperative if the U.S. wants to increase the number of people attaining degrees.

It is important to note that, even if free tuition were the single and best solution to this question, the implementation of a free education policy would do more harm than good. Private institutions like BC would likely be unable to compete with the free public options, and many would eventually cease to exist. This development would both reduce the number of schools students are able to attend, and reduce the effectiveness of the schools in general. For example, with this development, there would be less incentive for schools to ensure the success of their students after graduation. If colleges stopped caring or started to become less concerned with what their students did upon graduation, productivity—exactly what the policy is trying to improve—would decline, and we would be back to square one.

In the realm of college and higher education, the notion that people are a product of their surroundings reigns true. Lower-income families and first generation students are at a disadvantage in the game of higher education. In order to increase the number of Americans pursuing higher education, we must start at the root of the problem by making fundamental changes in our country’s educational and social support systems. Reducing the tuition of public colleges to zero is too simple a solution to this complex problem, and would likely do more harm than good.

 

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Stephanie Scanzillo