Debate, Week 2: Should College be Free?

Students in the summer offering of my Introduction to American Politics course were assigned to write their final paper on one of three contemporary political debates in the United States – immigration reform, college affordability, and transgender bathroom policy. For the next two weeks, I will post a few especially good responses from my students on each issue. You can find the discussion about immigration here.

This week, my students discuss whether or not college should be free in the United States. When students in the class were asked in a survey whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that tuition should free at all public colleges and universities throughout America, 34% agreed that tuition should be free, 60% disagreed, and 6% reported not knowing.  As you’ll see from the commentary below, there is much more nuance than these numbers suggest.

Free Higher Education is Not Feasible

Response 1, Andrea H. 

A popular topic of debate surrounding the 2016 presidential election has been the affordability and accessibility of higher education in the United States. The attempted push toward free college tuition at public universities and colleges has sparked a national interest that seems unlikely to end any time soon. This hot topic has led to demand, especially from younger citizens, to know a candidate’s stance on the matter. Though one candidate’s stance on free college can set them apart from other candidates, the idea of free higher education in the United States is not a feasible ambition.

Free public college in America almost sounds too good to be true, and that’s because it is. Implementing free tuition for any student attending a public university would have many negative implications. First, money for the university has to come from somewhere­­— mainly, taxpayers. The financial burden of higher education would ultimately be dispersed throughout society via increased income taxation (Jackson, 2016). Second, making the choice to financially invest in an education likely incentivizes students to be successful through college in order to materialize their investment; whereas, free college could lead to a “no-loss” mindset if failure ensues. In fact, the majority of the European countries with free college don’t graduate over 50% of their students, while the United States is currently ranked fifth out of nineteen countries in this category according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Kelly, 2016b). Another pitfall associated with the idea of free college is the impact the colleges will face. Free tuition for students would also likely compromise the resources and education of those in attendance. Schools will be unable to generate funds, likely leading to a lesser quality education than would be received in present day (Kelly, 2016a). Similarly, if enrollment totals are increased, a college diploma could become devalued and essentially meaningless if anyone and everyone has the opportunity to go to college. Overall, free college tuition has substantial negative consequences on society as a whole and public college institutions.

However, many citizens are still vastly in favor of free college tuition. With ever-rising tuition prices and students graduating with copious amounts of debt, it is easy to see where the support stems from despite the inherent problems with the concept. Tuition should be made more affordable, but free tuition for all is not the answer. Those in support of free tuition argue that free higher education should be a right for all students graduating high school, even those who struggled, since it usually leads to a more stable life (Page & Clawson, 2015). However, performance in high school is often a solid indicator of how one will perform in college, and a person who struggles in high school will not likely succeed through the rigors of college without help. Also, if everyone has access to higher education, enrollment would become unregulated and over-capacitate public schools – further leading to education of a lower-quality to accommodate the influx of students going to college just because they can. In turn, if the majority of the population holds a college degree, their over-abundance would become much like a high school diploma is viewed now, where there is little value placed on having one.

One alternative to free public college tuition for all is Tennessee’s Promise Program, where students gain free community college tuition if they maintain a 2.5 GPA and are at least half-time students. The White House has offered $100 million to support tuition-free community college programs like this across the country (Morris, 2016). Programs like these could be the happy middle ground between today’s college tuition and totally free tuition for four-year universities, and would possibly be a better alternative for those who are not academically qualified for four-year universities.

College tuition is a large point of interest for young citizens, especially those considering furthering their education. Candidates have seemed to voice their support and plans for free public college tuition, but have not stated and shared the negative implications it could potentially have on society as a whole. Overall, the undesirable effects free tuition would place on society outweigh the benefits.

College Affordability as a National Standard

Response 2, Jesse H. 

In the 2016 presidential election, one of the hot topics has been affordable college education. One side of the argument states that higher education prices need to be cut so that lower income students have access to these schools allowing America’s future high school graduates to stay academically competitive on an international level. The other side argues that cutting prices will not actually provide greater opportunities to the lower class, but will instead perpetuate inequality due to an already biased society towards higher income communities. 

Before moving further, there are a few distinctions that must be made between “affordable” and “free” as well as “price” and “costs” in order to keep a sober understanding of the argument at hand. College is not, nor will it ever be “free”. While tuition may disappear for students, the price to keep universities running nationwide will remain, regardless of what students are paying. This only increases the need for federal funding and national debt (Kelly, 2016). “Affordable” on the other hand is a redundant term. Of course everyone wants college to be affordable. The question is not affordability relative to other universities, but affordability as a national standard. The second distinction that must be made is that the “price” of a university is how much a student must pay while the “cost” is what is required in order for the university to function. So when an argument is made to decrease prices and make higher education affordable, it is not only deceiving, but also dangerously inept.

The fiscal focus for education is greatly misdirected. There is a higher focus on prestige of a university than on the low income students that many claim to be fighting for (Berg, 2012). Those that support free education misunderstand the effects of this price change. It is assumed that a change in price makes it more accessible to low-income students (Page & Clawson, 2015), but when it becomes more accessible to low-income students, it also becomes just as accessible to higher income students. This increases the overall number of college applicants, which not only increases the cost of a university but also requires a decrease in acceptance rates because more and more students are turned away. A decrease in acceptance rates benefits students from higher income families. Higher income students already have an advantage because college is, in many ways, formatted around the privileged (Berg, 2012).

Affordability on a national standard – in contrast to free education – could be beneficial. In the last three years the interest rates on college loans have almost doubled (McNerny, 2013). For many college aged students paying their way through school, a loan with heavy interest can have lasting and detrimental effects. In a market where even post-graduate jobs are not readily available, student loans are becoming increasingly daunting. The danger for America’s higher education system is that universities become factories rather than institutions. Americans want to stay academically competitive but dumping resources into a high income whirlpool society does not accomplish this – it fractures it and isolates opportunity. But on the other hand, neither does a program that removes the one aspect of a system that keeps it competitive to begin with: money. Instead, an influx of federal funds should come well before higher education is even a thought. Studies show that lower income communities receive significantly less federal funding than their sister communities (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Rather than taking money that doesn’t exist to begin with and making college free, funding should instead be spent on K-12 education in low income and disadvantaged schools. This is an intelligent response to affordable higher education because it accomplishes the same goal in a much more specified manner.

Free for Some, Reform for All

Response 3, April N. 

The rising cost of college is a topic of concern for many Americans. Higher education has become a requirement for economic and social advancement. However, the majority of students cannot afford to pay tuition without financial aid or loans, which are often inadequate or lead to insurmountable debt. In light of this problematic situation, policy makers, educators, and advocates have debated whether tuition-free college provides the solution. Some oppose universal tuition-free college and favor systematic reform or needs-based financial aid, pointing either to budgetary concerns or socioeconomic disadvantage. Others favor a free-college-for-all model and reform to expand sources of funding but argue against targeted aid as a flawed and ineffective system. There are also those who offer à la carte solutions, pushing for reform either throughout the federal aid system, within institutions of higher education, or even at the K-12 level. While the conversation on college affordability is often divided, all sides of the debate offer something toward solving the problem. College should be free for all students that can demonstrate need, and reforms in the federal aid system and institutions of higher education should be made to accommodate this change.

Many see college education as a necessary social good and agree that college should be accessible to anyone who wishes to pursue a degree – regardless of their financial situation (Long, 2010; New York Times, 2016). By making college tuition-free at two- and four-year institutions a reality for those with a proven financial need, the US government could greatly expand college access. This would especially benefit low-income and underrepresented students, whose decisions to enroll are influenced strongly by the cost of tuition and the availability of aid (Long, 2010). Signaling the urgency of the matter, community college administrators report that their students are withdrawing from their courses due to an inability to pay (Cubberley, 2015). Tuition-free college for millions of low-income students could mean that the question of how to pay for higher education would no longer be a barrier.

In order for this tuition-free model to be successful, the current federal aid system would need to be reformed throughout. To start with, the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) should be simplified. This introduction to college tuition payment can be confusing and intimidating for students, and may negatively influence decisions about whether to attend college at all (Long, 2010). If students could better understand their college funding options and access them without struggling through an eight-page packet, more graduating seniors would likely consider pursuing a college degree. The sources of student aid should also be revised, considering that the national student loan debt currently exceeds one trillion dollars (Cubberley, 2015). Grant funding and scholarship programs should be made available to far more students, allowing those who do not qualify for need based aid to lessen their dependence on loans. After all, students who think they cannot afford college without heavy loan debt may not even consider applying (Long, 2010). Not only should loans be used to supplement other forms of aid, but they also should be restructured to include repayment incentives for academic performance. While these reforms will be challenging, they could increase college enrollment and help more students reach degree completion, while reducing student debt.

Colleges and universities also have a responsibility – to their students and to the communities they serve – to undertake their own reforms. As the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform points out, low-income students receiving Pell Grant funding to attend community colleges graduated at a rate of one-third between 2003 and 2009 (New York Times, 2016). Schools clearly have some work to do toward improving their academic programs and student retention. However, reform in community colleges and universities will mean very little if changes do not also occur in the primary education system. Despite the fact that nearly seventy percent of all high school graduates go to college, only forty percent of these students are college ready (New York Times, 2016). Until we ensure that all students are adequately prepared for college, we cannot hope for our institutions of higher learning to develop the programs that will fuel a changing economy and foster cultural growth.


What about you? What are your thoughts on college affordability in the United States? Leave your comments below.

*Responses shared with written permission from the authors. Replication in any form, without permission from the author, is prohibited.

"Student Loan and Debt Images" by airpix (CC BY 2.0)

“Student Loan and Debt Images” by airpix (CC BY 2.0)



  1. Response 1
    1. Jackson, A. (2016, March 6). Free College in Europe Isn’t Really Free. Retrieved from free-college-2016-3
    2. Kelly, A. (2016a, January 20). The Problem Is That Free College Isn’t Free. Retrieved from free/the-problem-is-that-free-college-isnt-free
    3. Kelly, A. (2016b, February 23). The High Cost of Free College. Retrieved from
    4. Morris, C. (2016). White House Adding $100 Million to Tuition-free Community College Program Push, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 33. Retrieved from
    5. Page, M., & Clawson, D. (2015). It’s Time to Push for Free College. Retrieved  from
  2. Response 2 
    1. Berg, G. A. (2012) Low-Income Students and the Perpetuation of Inequality.
    2. Kelly, A. P. (2016) The Problem Is That Free College Isn’t Free. Retrieved from
    3. McNerny, J. (2013) An Affordable College Education Will Keep the U.S. Competitive. Retrieved from .
    4. Page, M., Clawson, D. (2015) It’s Time to Push for Free College. Retrieved from
  3. Response 3
    1. Cubberley, F. (2015). The Reality of Free Community College Tuition. Journal Of College Admission, 227, 21-23. Retrieved from com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=111803610&site=ehost-live
    2. Long, B. T. (2010). Making College Affordable by Improving Aid Policy. Issues In Science & Technology, 26(4), 27-38. Retrieved from url=
    3. New York Times. (2016, January 20). Room for Debate: Should College Be Free?. Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Debate, Week 2: Should College be Free?

  1. Very thoughtful commentaries. Enjoyed reading them. I have to agree with a reining in of the students cost, starting with the textbook cost for newer additions. While I’m sure algebra has changed little over the last thirty years colleges tend to impose requirement for new books every semester. This is true in many early level courses and subjects. This could be targeted as a start to education cost reduction.

    • Neal, thanks for your comments! I agree that textbook costs can get out of hand and are often “hidden/forgotten” costs when considering higher education.

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