SHOULD COLLEGE TUITION BE FREE?
A student perspective.
K. Scarlett Ramey, University of North Dakota, January, 2017
Should college education be free to students? It is a question that has been asked
continuously over the past few decades, and discourse on the matter has only increased in
recent years. Yearly tuition at a public university can top off at nearly $20,000 a year at
the highest, and around $6,000 a year at the lowest. (Wiener, J. 2015) In 2013, students
had an average debt of $15,000 dollars at time of graduation, and that number got even
higher looking at the perspective per borrower, coming in at $25,000. (Chronicle of
Higher Education, 2015)
These numbers are further complicated by the realities that face students post
graduation. The rate of unemployment for graduates with an education of a Bachelor’s
Degree or higher remains fairly low, though it consistently lingers at 2-3%. (Bureau of
Labor Satistics, 2015) Furthermore, millions of graduates with student loans are currently
struggling to pay them. 3.6 million borrowers were in default, meaning they had gone a
year or longer without any payments, in the year 2015. Another 3 million are a month or
so were behind. Another three million were unable to make any payments on their loans,
and are currently in “forbearance” or “deferment”. Combined, these loans represent debts
of more than 100 billion. (Mitchell, J. 2016) Is there anything that can be done about this
horrible picture, where students are enticed to sign for astronomical loans that 1 in 6 will
struggle to pay in the future?
FISCAL POSSIBILITY OF A FREE COLLEGE EDUCATION
Considering the troubling numbers and statistics involved with graduate debt and
unemployment, the next question seems very obvious. What can we do to change this
unforgiving cycle of deep debt, where new professionals struggle to pay for the education they
worked so hard for? In the 2016 election cycle, the conversation of free tuition was
highlighted in debates and promising platforms. Still, to many it sounded like a dream too
good to be true. Free college tuition represented an impossible cost to cover, how could it
be a conceivable dream for even a presidential candidate?
It is important to remember that this discussion has been going on for some time.
In fact, President Obama made a proposal that offered 2 years of free community college,
based on Federal and State funding. (Sibley, C., Carr, M., and Todaro, J. 2015) This
proposal was largely rejected by Congress, and the reason is always the same:
affordability. Obama’s proposal would have required 25 billion federally, with states
footing 6 billion more. (Wiener, J. 2015) In a country full of debt and deficit, these are
sound like simply unachievable numbers. Is that truly the case?
Consider Tennessee Promise, the state run program that grants free tuition to any
high school graduate of the state. There are stipulations, of course. The program provides
tuition for two years, and only to attend local community colleges. They must enroll full
time and have a 2.0 GPA. It will also only cover expenses that are not already covered by
other financial means, such as the Pell Grant. (Kelderman, E. 2015) More than 16,000
students took advantage of the Tennessee Promise, and first-time higher education
enrollment was up 10% from the previous year. (Adams, C. 2015) How does Tennessee
afford this promise to open the door to a free education to every graduating high school
student? Most of the self-sustaining endowment is funded by the state lottery system, and
legislature provides the rest. Governor Bill Haslam argued Tennessee needed more
educated people and the Tennessee Promise is a program designed with the attempt to
increase the number of residents with a degree from 35% to 55% in 2025. (Wiener, J. 2015)
Other states are following Tennessee’s example and the program seems to be a
success. Is it really impossible that these ideals could not be seen on a country-wide
scale? If Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are any indication, all countries that currently
provide free college tuition to a variety of students, the answer is no.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS OF A FREE COLLEGE EDUCATION
Once you look past the financial possibility of a free education, there is still more
to consider. It is a complicated idea, mired with philosophical questions such as
capitalism, social class, and human rights. Fiscal data is far easier to present, since it is
statistics and data that cannot be argued. Philosophy is not quite as simple. It is a matter
of interpretation, and each of us will interpret differently based on how we think and see
the world, as well as our own experiences.
In August of 1963, Martin Luther King spoke to a crowd about the need for
equality and fairness in education. Then, he was speaking of racial equality, that separate
was not equal. Much as changed now in the year of 2017, and yet the separation of our
society lingers. Only 40% of black high school graduates will attend college, and an even
lower 30% of Hispanic/Latina graduates will attend. Compared to 56% of Caucasians, we
are faced with an alarming disparity. Beyond racial barriers, there are still others affected
by college costs; consider those with lower incomes and less financial stability. Martin
Luther King reminded us of the creed written into our very constitution, that all men are
created equal. Education is a human right (Human Rights Quarterly, 1987) and in the
United States a free and fair public education is available to all. It is my opinion that there
is no reason for this human right to end after the age of twelve. All have a right and
freedom to furthering themselves and their lives through education, both elementary and
higher and beyond, and currently institutions are unfairly biased to keep the less fortunate
There is also the idea that offering an education for free would cause it to have
less value. I argue that education has not lessened in value for all the children benefiting
from our public schools. In fact, the federal requirements for strict guidelines for student
success have benefited our society and our children by improving their futures. It stands
to reason that universal education would have the same benefits and boons to our country
as a whole. It is not the education that is losing value, in fact, it is the individuals granted
a chance at higher education that are gaining societal traction and empowerment. College
should not be for the rich, the socially powerful, or educationally gifted. It should be a
possibility for anyone with desires of improving themselves through higher education,
and making college free would make it more accessible to those who currently are left
The last argument is relating to economic justice. If college were to be free, it
would only help those with lower incomes. I do not find this to be the case. If those with
lower incomes and less opportunity can achieve an education that would increase their
ability to support and contribute to our society, everyone would benefit. It would lessen
the achievement gap, improve understanding between all, and offer opportunities for us
to come together rather than to come apart. In the end it seems to me a selfish concern,
how a free education could help those who need help and not properly support those who
are already succeeding without supports. When everyone succeeds, when everyone can
reap the benefits of a college education and the possibilities a degree can offer, we all
benefit. Not just those who are offered an opportunity previously unknown to them.
Philosophical debates are often the hardest to answer. Opinions come based on
emotional response and moral beliefs, what lingers in the heart instead of a book. There is
no proving which is the right and wrong way, and yet I say we look to what we have
already determined to be human rights to guide us in this inquiry. Separate is not equal.
Education is a human right, and a right available to all ethnicities, cultures, races,
genders, and abilities. If this is true from kindergarten to 12th grade, it stands to reason
that it should extend to college education as well. The system as it stands now does little
to welcome and much to exclude, if not by design then by intentional ignorance to those
unable to reap the benefits of a college education.
It is undeniable that free tuition would change the outlooks of many students.
Those with less financial stability would have an option they did not previously. It would
allow for more graduates and more educated workers entering the workforce. It would
allow access for more to graduate, even those from lower income families. It opens a
door previously closed to so many, the chance at furthering themselves and their
education without the added pressure of unbelievable debt.
As a college student myself, I cannot argue that this dream seems far away. It is
not likely that free college tuition will be an option before I graduate. It also does nothing
to ease the strain of those already suffering under the weight of federal loans. However,
thanks to my perspective as someone already in the environment, I know without a doubt
that such an option would provide both financial and emotional stability. Arguably, free
tuition would not pay any life expenses, which often are the biggest day-to-day concern
of college students. Most especially to those who have returned to school, or who must
work while earning their degree. However, those day-to-day and present expenses and
debts cannot really compare to tens of thousands that weigh on current students both
during and after their graduation.
It is my opinion that the United States would benefit from a free tuition system. I
believe that it would offer more opportunities to those that currently have few, if any at
all. I have read about civil rights activists and education advocates who argue that
education is a right, not a privilege, and I believe this extends far past graduation of high
school. I think it is a definite fiscal possibility, currently on the minds of many of our
politicians. Contributions from lotteries and other state-run service could ease the
financial strain of many, and the benefits would outweigh the costs. More degreed
workers would improve our economy and our society as a whole. I would even argue that
free tuition for in-demand jobs would be better than nothing at all.
The cost is undeniable, yes, and state and federal government along with
taxpayers would be responsible for covering it. I believe that cost is worth showing the
young people of our nation that we believe in their future. To tell a high school student
that they need a college education to succeed and then turn around and put them in nearly
insurmountable debt to achieve it is downright irresponsible. To perpetuate the idea that
those without the money or financial freedom to attend college are not valued members
of our society is insidiously discriminatory. The benefits to free education far outweigh
the risk, and it is my belief that we can achieve this goal if we all work toward it. More
than that, it is a continuation of rights and ideals we have all agreed to be inherent and
inarguable. So much stands to improve from making education more accessible and
attainable for all. Comparatively, fiscal concerns seem little contest to what we stand to
gain. The philosophical debates seem to do little more than to perpetuate intensely
ingrained perceptions in our society that some are not meant to accomplish, succeed, or
One day in the years to come the United States could be a place of free higher
education for all, a place where high school students from all walks of life have an
opportunity to improve themselves without the overbearing pressure of debt over their
heads while they do. I hope to be there when that day happens. I believe the right to
higher education will come one day, and until then I hope to do all I can to advocate for
my potential students to fight against the system that would maintain a civil unbalance
against them. I believe in the freedom and fairness of our future, and it is my hope that
soon all of us will.
Adams, C. (2015). Tenn. Free-Tuition Program Moves Focus to College Retention; More than 16,000 students received free tuition. Education Week, 35(14), 15.
Estimated average total of debt of bachelor’s-degree recipients at public 4-year colleges, 2002-3 to 2012- 2013. (2015, August 21) The Chronicle of Higher Education, (61)43, 43.
Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population 25 years and over by educational attainment, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. (2016, January 1). Retrieved January 29, 2017, from https://www.bls.gov/
Giegerich, S. (2003, Oct 23). Number of minorities in college doubles but still less likely than whites to enroll. Precinct Reporter Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.und.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/367575544?accountid=28267
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (1987). Human Rights Quarterly, 9(2), 274- 284.
Kelderman, E. (2015). Tennessee's Task: Turn 'Free Community College' From a Rallying Cry Into a Success. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 61(24), The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb 27, 2015, Vol.61(24).
Mitchell, J. (2016, Apr 06). More than 40% of student borrowers aren't making payments; new figure raises worries that millions of them may never repay more than $200 billion owed. Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.und.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1778824657?accountid=2826 7
Sibley, C., Carr, M., & Todaro, J. (2015). Winds of change: Obama's free tuition proposal. American Libraries, 46(11-12), 26.
Wiener, J. (2015). Aiming higher: Make college tuition free. The Nation, 300(14), 224.
Winner, 2017 Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, Eliot Glassheim Essay Award on Capitalism and the Public Good. Go to: www.philosophyinpubliclife.org for more information.