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Should College be Free?

we are students not customersSource We are students, not customers. Education should be a right, not a priviledge

Nowadays, if you want to get a decent job, a bachelor’s degree is a must. Whether or not you decide to go to graduate school is up to you. Just remember, you need that college diploma in order to get a skilled job that doesn't have you living paycheck to paycheck.

Once you get past the tradition of filling out college applications and visiting colleges, you deal with an entirely new challenge: financial aid. Unfortunately, college tuition has been rising for the last several decades and does not appear to be getting cheaper anytime soon. Add to the fact that national student debt is over 1 trillion dollars (1.2 trillion if you want to get specific). Is it right for an college graduate to be crippled by debt fresh out of college? It definitely doesn't help when one considers that the growth of student debt astonishingly surpasses wage growth. Clearly, something should be done about this.

Solutions have been proposed. If you have been closely watching this election cycle for the past year or so, you may have heard Bernie Sanders calling for public colleges to be tuition free. Eventually, Secretary Hillary Clinton has added this proposal to her campaign platform. Jill Stein from the Green Party has proposed for eliminating student debt altogether. As nice as all this sounds: Is is viable? Specifically, would free public colleges be feasible?

The Idea

Free Public college sounds like a daydream come true. Imagine applying to any public college without worrying if you will be able to pay for it. Imagine only worrying your grades instead of stressing whether you’ll be able to pay for the upcoming semester. And to those who have already graduated: imagine life without college debt. To quote Senator Sanders, “Education should be available to all regardless of anyone’s situation”.

Alas, as nice as this all sounds, I believe that making public colleges tuition free is not the answer.

First off, how will the government get the funding? According Clinton's proposals, the funds will be “fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers.”

Assuming that such a proposal will be passed by Congress without opposition, let’s look at who this would benefit the most. It is important to note that “free” public college is not actually “free”, mainly because it only covers tuition. In regards to food and boarding, students and their families must figure out a way to come up with the funds. A study done by the Brookings Institute shows that such a proposal would mainly benefit higher income families, not lower income families. Aside from preventing debt, the idea behind free public college is to make higher education much more accessible to all, particularly middle to lower income families.

Typically, lower income families send their children to community colleges given their low cost. Public colleges, on the other hand, see a greater spectrum of social classes within their student body. Should free public college become a reality, it is worth noting that it would provide more benefits for higher income families instead of lower income families. This chart shows that the top 11% of students (high income), would see 18% of the benefits. The bottom 14% of students (low income), on the other hand, would only see 16% of benefits.

altSource This chart provides a breakdown on how eliminating tuition would affect different social classes

Furthermore, lower income students would still have to find a way to fund non-tuition expenses. At this point, these students wouldn’t be able to ask to government for additional funds given that all funds are going towards making public college tuition free.

It’s been done before…

And here in the United States, too. Over a decade ago, a group of people in Kalamazoo, Michigan got together and decided to create a scholarship to send their town’s high school graduates off to college. Also known as the Kalamazoo Promise, this scholarship covers up to 100% percent of tuition based costs. To be eligible, students must graduate with a high school diploma from Kalamazoo schools. Before we get into the details, it should be noted since the Kalamazoo Promise's inception, high school graduation rates increased. This is a promising sign, as tuition expenses are no longer a roadblock to discourage students from pursuing a college diploma. Moreover, racial gaps via college enrollment has virtually disappeared through the use of this program. It should be noted that income and race are vital factors in this study, especially as black students are more likely to come lower income families.

altSource Thanks to the Kalamazoo promise, there is an increase in high school graduation rate and an non existent racial gap of graduates

If you look at the chart, one can see that college enrollment (for Kalamazoo) between whites and blacks are virtually identical.In spite of this remarkable data, we can see racial gaps reemerge once we measure graduates' progression in college in the following chart.

altSource As time progresses, however, racial gaps reappear as performance is measured throughout the span of sixteen months

Over the span of 16 months, we begin to see that white students overall have a better progression compared to black students. This chart also demonstrates that the same concept applies when pitting Not-Disadvantaged students against Disadvantaged students. That is not to say white students are more capable than black students or that non-disadvantaged folk are smarter than disadvantaged folk. It merely shows that their background education was not good enough. We see that for Kalamazoo high school graduates, black and white students progress at a noticeably different rate (57% vs 28%). It becomes more troubling once we see college graduation rates.

altSource In spite of similar high school graduation rates between white and black students, white students surpass black students when it came to college graduation

Here we see that although white and black students shared similar high school graduation rates, college graduation rates between the two cohorts are noticeably different. The data shows that there are nearly three times are white college graduates as there are black college graduates.


The Kalamazoo Promise has succeeded in raising high school graduation rates within the district. It is clear that without college costs discouraging students from attending college, students feel more inspired to graduate high school.

With that being said, there are limits to providing free money for students. Just look at the data. Although you have an improved college enrollment rate that eliminates a racial gap, it reemerges once students’ college progression is measured. Furthermore, college graduation rates remain depressingly low once students are divided into racial cohorts. If money isn’t the biggest issue, then what is?

College readiness

Are high students actually ready for college? In other words, do they have the necessary skills and knowledge to graduate from college? The main issue isn’t money, but rather that high schools aren’t adequately providing students with the tools they deserve. When Senator Sanders first mentioned free college, the internet went viral. College debt is a troubling issue and education is a right that all students should have, especially here in the United States. Nonetheless, problems aren’t resolved just by chucking money at it. Yes, money plays a crucial factor in college enrollment, but what is the point of encouraging students to go to college if they won’t be able to complete it?

There should be some type of middle ground. The Kalamazoo Promise was a success in some aspects and should not be overlooked. However, to expect that a student will graduate from college when he/she has a poor education background (K-12) is foolish. I say that high schools, or even the entire public school system, should be reevaluated. While reforms should be done in regards to overpriced college tuition, the public school system should be given high priority as it lays the foundation to the student's success. How could a student succeed when they are forced to stand on weak building blocks? The task will be spartan and gargantuan no doubt, but regardless of our political affiliations and such, a student's education is undeniably worth fighting for.