Should education be free? It seems like this question dominates the current educational and political climates of our country, and with steadily rising tuition fees, it is an important discussion to have. But what are the pros and cons of this debate, and is this even the right question to be asking, now?
According to an article written by Brianna McGurran and published by Forbes Advisor, in 1980, the cost to attend a four-year university full time was $10,231 annually. In the 2019-2020 academic year, the total annual cost was $28,775. This cost has only decreased about 1.7% in the last 3 years. This is a 180% increase over 40 years.
To put it frankly, this is ridiculous. This follows a common trend which has been occurring in our country for over the last century: inflation. According to an article written for McKinsey and Company, inflation is defined as a “gradual loss of purchasing power, reflected in a broad rise in prices for goods and services.” This means that stuff costs more, but people have less money to pay for said stuff.
But how does inflation happen? There are two primary reasons why this occurs, and they are called demand-pull and cost-push. Much of my understanding of these factors and of general economics comes from when I studied Macroeconomics under Dr. Howard Richman, an economist and author from Kittanning, PA.
Demand-pull inflation is when people want something, but not enough of that thing exists. This means that prices for that thing go up. An example of this would be a chocolate bar. If there is a worldwide chocolate shortage, the price of chocolate is going to go up. This means candy bars will become more expensive, due to the low supply and alternatives to candy bars, like Swedish Fish or Gummy Bears, will also increase in price. When the demand for something exceeds the supply, it affects the whole economy, raising prices everywhere, causing money to be worth less.
Cost-push inflation is when there is not enough of something to make a final product, causing the final product to cost more. For example, with a chocolate bar, if there is a worldwide peanut shortage, the cost of Snickers bars will increase, because of the higher price of the peanuts used to make them. This means anything that uses peanuts will cost more, and the cost of production will increase, making prices increase and money to again be worth less.
Both types of inflation can be caused by different factors, such as social crises like the 2020 Pandemic, changes in purchasing trends like the move away from Nestle products due to the company’s poor treatment of employees, foreign wars such as America’s funding of Ukraine during its conflict with Russia, and even labor shortages like when unions strike.
Inflation has decreased the value of the United States currency over the last hundred years. This is why “penny candy” now costs 25¢. This is also why the cost of college has increased 180% over the last 40 years.
Now, with that background, should college be free?
One of the greatest benefits of free education could be true social equality. If college were free, there would be no barrier for anyone to get into a top university, aside from personal achievement. Race, gender, location, economic background, and other demographic factors could no longer be relevant to the college application process. Then, the higher education system could be truly equal.
Another benefit of free college would be an increase in people with specialized degrees. This would mean there would be more doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists, pilots, and engineers in the world. This would drive the prices of things like flights, medical services, and experimental technology down, because of the larger labor pool. When supply increases and demand stays the same, prices fall while production stays the same, according to Economics and Contemporary Issues 3rd Edition, written by Michael Edgmand, Ronald Moowaw, and Kent Olson, and retrieved from Notre Dame University’s website.
Finally, one of the most desirable benefits of free education would be the lack of debt when people graduate from college. No longer would students have to stress about scholarships, loans, and debt payments. This would improve mental health throughout the country, according to this article by Equifax, which correlates debt and poor mental health. An added benefit to the financial freedom caused by free college is the middle class will increase. If college is made free, the average Waynesburg University student will have $112,480 more dollars in their bank account than they would if they had to pay for college, according to the Waynesburg University tuition and fees page.
Now, for some of the cons.
One of the problems with making education free is that it will push college debt on to other people. If the government chooses to fund all higher education institutions, this would increase taxation of the general public. The government receives its funding through taxpayer dollars, according to an article by the government funded webpage, Fiscaldata.treasury.gov. If higher education was made a government responsibility, the government would increase taxes on U.S. citizens to receive this funding. This may disperse the cost, but when students graduate from college, they would be responsible for paying these taxes as well. While college payments would be significantly lower per year, college graduates may end up paying more for college. This is due to the college taxes adding up over time and potentially costing more than if the payments were handled on an individual basis. In addition, the concept of paying off college debt would cease to exist. People would be paying their college debt back for the rest of their lives. Another effect of this would be that people who chose a path other than college would be stuck paying a college tax for a service they never used.
Now, this isn’t an inherent problem, but it does beg the question of how much control is too much? The U.S. was founded on the principles of personal freedom and choice overriding all else, including government control. This is due to the belief that a government should be subject to its own people and not have the power to refuse the demands of the people. Whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing, it does mean that putting education into the hands of the government takes power away from the people and gives it to the government. This means the government would have a say in everything from how colleges are run to what curriculum is taught. It also gives the government more spending power than it needs. America is in trillions of dollars of debt. In my opinion, having access to more money is the last thing the government needs.
Another major issue with free college would be the inflation caused by it. According to an article by smartasset, written by Mark Henricks, government spending is one of the factors that causes inflation to increase. By increasing government spending, the government would risk tanking the dollar’s value, and students would have to pay a higher cost of living as a byproduct of getting free college.
One more issue which could come with free education is the devaluing of the college degree. Education is expensive. Having to pay for education is an incentive for students to do well in college. If the incentive to make the most out of a college program is taken away, there could be a major drop in grades, an increase in college dropouts, and a resulting lower standard for graduation. This would cause a degree to mean less for potential employers, especially during the hiring process. This would also cause an increase in people entering the trades, in turn causing employment opportunities to go down.
The result of this is a decrease in the value of something called human capital. Human capital is defined, according to an article written by Claudia Golden for Harvard University, as “the stock of skills that the labor force possesses”. This means the skills of the workforce, whether those be the ability to do woodwork, or the ability to perform brain surgery, will decrease in value, due to the increase in workers, without the proper means to accommodate them. With the establishment of a free college program, and no measures being put in place to expand the economy, the stream of new graduates would find themselves scrambling for jobs that do not exist.
Finally, all these factors compound to form the threat of stagflation, as a result of free education. An article by Jim Probasco for Fortune defines stagflation as what happens when inflation meets slow economic growth and low employment. Due to the inflation of the economy via government spending, the lack of growth opportunities from the decrease in the value of human capital, and the unemployment caused by the crowding out of specialized workers, the United States would be in a perfect position to suffer from a bad case of stagflation.
So, should education be free? In my opinion, no, but that is not the end of the answer. The ramifications of making college free would be too great to commit to that path, however the benefits of the decision cannot be ignored either. In addition, the prices of higher education cannot continue as they have been, or else college might be even less accessible in the future. So, what’s the fix?
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to this issue, but the best thing individuals who value education and care about this country can do is to get involved. There are plenty of easily digestible educational resources on the internet about economics and social issues. As a society, we need to educate ourselves so we can hold our leaders accountable for their decisions. We need to become literate in these areas, so we can understand the decisions our leaders are making. Otherwise, we end up in a position like we are now, where the cost of a college education has increased 180% over the last 40 years. We need to be able to judge for ourselves whether our elected officials are deserving of the positions they hold or not based on the policies they intend to create. It is my opinion that education can and should be affordable for all people. The economy is not an uncontrollable monster, it is a system that operates on principles of cause and effect. This means with good, stable economic policy, rather than drastic social change, the economy can be managed, and people can have a chance at higher education. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of “We the People” to hold our elected leaders to the standard we decide for them, not the other way around.