It’s no secret that we’re facing a student loan debt crisis. In fact, it’s a problem that many leading political and economic figures have put their efforts towards trying to solve. But free tuition at community colleges and states schools, one common suggestion for dealing with the crisis, isn’t the answer.
At first glance, free tuition seems like a good idea. Who wouldn’t object to help a generation of students get a great education without having to take out student loans? But once you examine the costs, benefits, and drawbacks of the plan – it stops looking so promising.
It Benefits Low-Income Students
Free tuition is an idea that has the potential to particularly help low-income students who aren’t well represented in higher education and who are more likely to drop out because of the high cost of college.
That’s because many low-income students are debt conscious and are less likely to take on debt in order to pay for their education because they've seen debt adversely affect the lives of people close to them.
They also face difficulties accessing student loans. While everyone has equal access to federal student loans, many students have to take out private student loans in order to pay for their school costs. Low income students are particular disadvantaged in accessing private student loans since 90% of them require a cosigner and low-income students are less likely to know a friend or family member who is willing and able to cosign for them.
Free tuition would therefore be great for low-income students, but the problem with most proposals is that free tuition would be offered to all students.
Middle Class and Upper Class Students Can Afford to Pay
If you extend free tuition to all students, it would mean that those who are middle class or upper class can also go to school without having to pay anything. While many families in these income brackets are currently feeling burdened because the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, most can afford to contribute at least something to their education.
Free tuition would cost a significant amount of money. When Bernie Sanders proposed it as part of his presidential platform, he estimated that it would cost $75 billion per year. Since free tuition would be paid for with tax dollars, people from lower tax brackets would potentially be subsidizing the full post-secondary costs of families who could cover all or part of those costs themselves. That doesn’t seem fair, nor would it be an efficient use of tax dollars.
Free Tuition Would Increase Demand
When you make something free, demand for it usually picks up. That means that the demand for college would likely increase. That would necessitate massive investments in post-secondary capacity to ensure that everyone who was qualified to go to college would be able to do so.
This would make the free tuition policy significantly more expensive than any initial estimate since estimates usually rely on current attendance numbers. If there is no effort to increase the spots available in post-secondary education, it would make it far more competitive to get into college.
Free Tuition Could Underfund Schools
Another challenge when it comes to free tuition is that it could have the potential to underfund schools. Currently, schools set their budgets and adjust their tuition and residence fees in order to cover costs. But if free tuition came into effect and state schools were funded completely by government, then government would have a big say in the school’s budget. That could mean that in times of economic difficulty and on an ongoing basis, the government might not provide sufficient funding for the schools to provide a high quality education. If there is also pressure on the schools to expand and serve more students, quality will likely continue to decrease.
This could mean fewer services, larger class sizes, less frequent technology upgrades, and less one-on-one attention. It could also mean that professors’ salaries will stagnate and that could lead to a brain drain from the public post-secondary education system into private colleges. Over time, the quality of public education could decrease precipitously.
That could have big consequences since the graduates of public colleges and community colleges would not be as qualified or have the same level of training as graduates from private colleges. That would have a huge impact on those students’ employability and careers.
A More Measured Approach
The problem with suggesting free tuition as a solution to the student loan crisis is that it is too broad a policy suggestion to be effective. Offering free tuition to all would mean extending it to families who have the financial capacity to pay for college. It would also mean increasing demand and it could lead to underfunding schools and a decrease in school quality.
A better solution is to offer free tuition to low-income students to encourage their college attendance and to offer better financial aid to lower middle class students who are struggling to pay for college. This would ensure that those who need help most would get it and reduce the amount of student loans students would have to take out.