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The Arguments Why Education Should Be Free for Everyone

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Published: Mar 18, 2021

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Works Cited:

  • Alpha History. (n.d.). Nationalism as a cause of World War I.
  • Bernhardi, F. von. (1914). Germany and the Next War. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Cawley, J. (n.d.). Nationalism as the cause of European competitiveness that led to World War I.
  • History Home. (n.d.). The causes of World War One. Retrieved from https://www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/causeww1.htm
  • Rosenthal, L. (2016). The great war, nationalism and the decline of the West. Retrieved from https://lawrencerosenthal.net/2016/05/16/the-great-war-nationalism-and-the-decline-of-the-west/
  • Bloy, M. (n.d.). Nationalism in the 19th century. Retrieved from https://www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/natquest.htm

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Should Higher Education Be Free?

  • Vijay Govindarajan
  • Jatin Desai

Disruptive new models offer an alternative to expensive tuition.

In the United States, our higher education system is broken. Since 1980, we’ve seen a 400% increase in the cost of higher education, after adjustment for inflation — a higher cost escalation than any other industry, even health care. We have recently passed the trillion dollar mark in student loan debt in the United States.

  • Vijay Govindarajan is the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, and faculty partner at the Silicon Valley incubator Mach 49. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. His latest book is Fusion Strategy: How Real-Time Data and AI Will Power the Industrial Future . His Harvard Business Review articles “ Engineering Reverse Innovations ” and “ Stop the Innovation Wars ” won McKinsey Awards for best article published in HBR. His HBR articles “ How GE Is Disrupting Itself ” and “ The CEO’s Role in Business Model Reinvention ” are HBR all-time top-50 bestsellers. Follow him on LinkedIn . vgovindarajan
  • JD Jatin Desai is co-founder and chief executive officer of The Desai Group and the author of  Innovation Engine: Driving Execution for Breakthrough Results .

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Should College Be Free? The Pros and Cons

essay about higher education should be made free for all

Types of Publicly Funded College Tuition Programs

Pros: why college should be free, cons: why college should not be free, what the free college debate means for students, how to cut your college costs now, frequently asked questions (faqs).

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Americans have been debating the wisdom of free college for decades, and more than 30 states now offer some type of free college program. But it wasn't until 2021 that a nationwide free college program came close to becoming reality, re-energizing a longstanding debate over whether or not free college is a good idea. 

And despite a setback for the free-college advocates, the idea is still in play. The Biden administration's free community college proposal was scrapped from the American Families Plan . But close observers say that similar proposals promoting free community college have drawn solid bipartisan support in the past. "Community colleges are one of the relatively few areas where there's support from both Republicans and Democrats," said Tulane economics professor Douglas N. Harris, who has previously consulted with the Biden administration on free college, in an interview with The Balance. 

To get a sense of the various arguments for and against free college, as well as the potential impacts on U.S. students and taxpayers, The Balance combed through studies investigating the design and implementation of publicly funded free tuition programs and spoke with several higher education policy experts. Here's what we learned about the current debate over free college in the U.S.—and more about how you can cut your college costs or even get free tuition through existing programs.

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows free tuition programs encourage more students to attend college and increase graduation rates, which creates a better-educated workforce and higher-earning consumers who can help boost the economy. 
  • Some programs are criticized for not paying students’ non-tuition expenses, not benefiting students who need assistance most, or steering students toward community college instead of four-year programs.  
  • If you want to find out about free programs in your area, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education has a searchable database. You’ll find the link further down in this article. 

Before diving into the weeds of the free college debate, it's important to note that not all free college programs are alike. Most publicly funded tuition assistance programs are restricted to the first two years of study, typically at community colleges. Free college programs also vary widely in the ways they’re designed, funded, and structured:

  • Last-dollar tuition-free programs : These programs cover any remaining tuition after a student has used up other financial aid , such as Pell Grants. Most state-run free college programs fall into this category. However, these programs don’t typically help with room and board or other expenses.
  • First-dollar tuition-free programs : These programs pay for students' tuition upfront, although they’re much rarer than last-dollar programs. Any remaining financial aid that a student receives can then be applied to other expenses, such as books and fees. The California College Promise Grant is a first-dollar program because it waives enrollment fees for eligible students.
  • Debt-free programs : These programs pay for all of a student's college expenses , including room and board, guaranteeing that they can graduate debt-free. But they’re also much less common, likely due to their expense.  

Proponents often argue that publicly funded college tuition programs eventually pay for themselves, in part by giving students the tools they need to find better jobs and earn higher incomes than they would with a high school education. The anticipated economic impact, they suggest, should help ease concerns about the costs of public financing education. Here’s a closer look at the arguments for free college programs.

A More Educated Workforce Benefits the Economy

Morley Winograd, President of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, points to the economic and tax benefits that result from the higher wages of college grads. "For government, it means more revenue," said Winograd in an interview with The Balance—the more a person earns, the more they will likely pay in taxes . In addition, "the country's economy gets better because the more skilled the workforce this country has, the better [it’s] able to compete globally." Similarly, local economies benefit from a more highly educated, better-paid workforce because higher earners have more to spend. "That's how the economy grows," Winograd explained, “by increasing disposable income."

According to Harris, the return on a government’s investment in free college can be substantial. "The additional finding of our analysis was that these things seem to consistently pass a cost-benefit analysis," he said. "The benefits seem to be at least double the cost in the long run when we look at the increased college attainment and the earnings that go along with that, relative to the cost and the additional funding and resources that go into them." 

Free College Programs Encourage More Students to Attend

Convincing students from underprivileged backgrounds to take a chance on college can be a challenge, particularly when students are worried about overextending themselves financially. But free college programs tend to have more success in persuading students to consider going, said Winograd, in part because they address students' fears that they can't afford higher education . "People who wouldn't otherwise think that they could go to college, or who think the reason they can't is [that] it's too expensive, [will] stop, pay attention, listen, decide it's an opportunity they want to take advantage of, and enroll," he said.

According to Harris, students also appear to like the certainty and simplicity of the free college message. "They didn't want to have to worry that next year they were not going to have enough money to pay their tuition bill," he said. "They don't know what their finances are going to look like a few months down the road, let alone next year, and it takes a while to get a degree. So that matters." 

Free college programs can also help send "a clear and tangible message" to students and their families that a college education is attainable for them, said Michelle Dimino, an Education Director with Third Way. This kind of messaging is especially important to first-generation and low-income students, she said. 

Free College Increases Graduation Rates and Financial Security

Free tuition programs appear to improve students’ chances of completing college. For example, Harris noted that his research found a meaningful link between free college tuition and higher graduation rates. "What we found is that it did increase college graduation at the two-year college level, so more students graduated than otherwise would have." 

Free college tuition programs also give people a better shot at living a richer, more comfortable life, say advocates. "It's almost an economic necessity to have some college education," noted Winograd. Similar to the way a high school diploma was viewed as crucial in the 20th century, employees are now learning that they need at least two years of college to compete in a global, information-driven economy. "Free community college is a way of making that happen quickly, effectively, and essentially," he explained. 

Free community college isn’t a universally popular idea. While many critics point to the potential costs of funding such programs, others identify issues with the effectiveness and fairness of current attempts to cover students’ college tuition. Here’s a closer look at the concerns about free college programs.

It Would Be Too Expensive

The idea of free community college has come under particular fire from critics who worry about the cost of social spending. Since community colleges aren't nearly as expensive as four-year colleges—often costing thousands of dollars a year—critics argue that individuals can often cover their costs using other forms of financial aid . But, they point out, community college costs would quickly add up when paid for in bulk through a free college program: Biden’s proposed free college plan would have cost $49.6 billion in its first year, according to an analysis from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Some opponents argue that the funds could be put to better use in other ways, particularly by helping students complete their degrees.

Free College Isn't Really Free

One of the most consistent concerns that people have voiced about free college programs is that they don’t go far enough. Even if a program offers free tuition, students will need to find a way to pay for other college-related expenses , such as books, room and board, transportation, high-speed internet, and, potentially, child care. "Messaging is such a key part of this," said Dimino. Students "may apply or enroll in college, understanding it's going to be free, but then face other unexpected charges along the way." 

It's important for policymakers to consider these factors when designing future free college programs. Otherwise, Dimino and other observers fear that students could potentially wind up worse off if they enroll and invest in attending college and then are forced to drop out due to financial pressures. 

Free College Programs Don’t Help the Students Who Need Them Most

Critics point out that many free college programs are limited by a variety of quirks and restrictions, which can unintentionally shut out deserving students or reward wealthier ones. Most state-funded free college programs are last-dollar programs, which don’t kick in until students have applied financial aid to their tuition. That means these programs offer less support to low-income students who qualify for need-based aid—and more support for higher-income students who don’t.

Community College May Not Be the Best Path for All Students

Some critics also worry that all students will be encouraged to attend community college when some would have been better off at a four-year institution. Four-year colleges tend to have more resources than community colleges and can therefore offer more support to high-need students. 

In addition, some research has shown that students at community colleges are less likely to be academically successful than students at four-year colleges, said Dimino. "Statistically, the data show that there are poorer outcomes for students at community colleges […] such as lower graduation rates and sometimes low transfer rates from two- to four-year schools." 

With Congress focused on other priorities, a nationwide free college program is unlikely to happen anytime soon. However, some states and municipalities offer free tuition programs, so students may be able to access some form of free college, depending on where they live. A good resource is the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s searchable database of Promise Programs , which lists more than 100 free community college programs, though the majority are limited to California residents.

In the meantime, school leaders and policymakers may shift their focus to other access and equity interventions for low-income students. For example, higher education experts Eileen Strempel and Stephen Handel published a book in 2021 titled "Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students." The book argues that policymakers should focus more strongly on college completion, not just college access. "There hasn't been enough laser-focus on how we actually get people to complete their degrees," noted Strempel in an interview with The Balance. 

Rather than just improving access for low-income college students, Strempel and Handel argue that decision-makers should instead look more closely at the social and economic issues that affect students , such as food and housing insecurity, child care, transportation, and personal technology. For example, "If you don't have a computer, you don't have access to your education anymore," said Strempel. "It's like today's pencil."

Saving money on college costs can be challenging, but you can take steps to reduce your cost of living. For example, if you're interested in a college but haven't yet enrolled, pay close attention to where it's located and how much residents typically pay for major expenses, such as housing, utilities, and food. If the college is located in a high-cost area, it could be tough to justify the living expenses you'll incur. Similarly, if you plan to commute, take the time to check gas or public transportation prices and calculate how much you'll likely have to spend per month to go to and from campus several times a week. 

Now that more colleges offer classes online, it may also be worth looking at lower-cost programs in areas that are farther from where you live, particularly if they allow you to graduate without setting foot on campus. Also, check out state and federal financial aid programs that can help you slim down your expenses, or, in some cases, pay for them completely. Finally, look into need-based and merit-based grants and scholarships that can help you cover even more of your expenses. Also, consider applying to no-loan colleges , which promise to help students graduate without going into debt.

Should community college be free?

It’s a big question with varying viewpoints. Supporters of free community college cite the economic contributions of a more educated workforce and the individual benefit of financial security, while critics caution against the potential expense and the inefficiency of last-dollar free college programs. 

What states offer free college?

More than 30 states offer some type of tuition-free college program, including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington State. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education lists over 100 last-dollar community college programs and 16 first-dollar community college programs, though the majority are limited to California residents.

Is there a free college?

There is no such thing as a truly free college education. But some colleges offer free tuition programs for students, and more than 30 states offer some type of tuition-free college program. In addition, students may also want to check out employer-based programs. A number of big employers now offer to pay for their employees' college tuition . Finally, some students may qualify for enough financial aid or scholarships to cover most of their college costs.

Scholarships360. " Which States Offer Tuition-Free Community College? "

The White House. “ Build Back Better Framework ,” see “Bringing Down Costs, Reducing Inflationary Pressures, and Strengthening the Middle Class.”

The White House. “ Fact Sheet: How the Build Back Better Plan Will Create a Better Future for Young Americans ,” see “Education and Workforce Opportunities.”

Coast Community College District. “ California College Promise Grant .”

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “ The Dollars and Cents of Free College ,” see “Biden’s Free College Plan Would Pay for Itself Within 10 Years.”

Third Way. “ Why Free College Could Increase Inequality .”

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “ The Dollars and Cents of Free College ,” see “Free-College Programs Have Different Effects on Race and Class Equity.”

University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “ College Promise Programs: A Comprehensive Catalog of College Promise Programs in the United States .”

Is free college a good idea? Increasingly, evidence says yes

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, douglas n. harris douglas n. harris nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy , professor and chair, department of economics - tulane university @douglasharris99.

May 10, 2021

  • 10 min read

In just a few short years, the idea of free college has moved from a radical idea to mainstream Democratic thinking. President Biden made free college one of his core campaign planks , and one that the first lady has been promoting for years. In his recent address to Congress, the president also signaled that he is ready for legislative action on a scaled-back version of the idea as part of his American Families Plan .

Two weeks ago, the nonprofit College Promise (CP)—led by Martha Kanter, who served as President Obama’s undersecretary for education—also released a proposal that will influence the free college debate. (Full disclosure: I previously advised the Biden campaign and presently advise CP, but have received no compensation for these efforts.)

In today’s polarized environment, the free college idea stands out for its bipartisan support. A majority of self-identified Republicans has supported the notion of free college in some polls. In fact, one of the first such statewide programs was put in place by Bill Haslam, the former Republican governor of Tennessee. While this could go the way of Obamacare, which faced strong GOP congressional opposition despite the law’s origins with Republican Mitt Romney, free college seems different. Biden’s latest plan only applies to community colleges, which focus on career and vocational education of the sort Republicans support, as opposed to universities, which many Republicans view as hostile battlegrounds in a culture war.

But I am less interested in the politics than the evidence of effectiveness. I have studied college access for many years and run two randomized control trials of financial aid , which produced some of the first causal evidence on free college in Milwaukee. Two years ago, Brookings released the first installment of the Milwaukee work, which I carried out with a team of researchers. Since then, we have collected more data and learned more about how students responded over time. Below, I summarize our just-released study (co-authored with Jonathan Mills), compare our results to other financial aid programs, and then discuss implications for the Biden and CP proposals. Consequently, I conclude that the evidence increasingly favors free college and “open access aid” more generally.

What Did We Learn in Milwaukee?

I developed The Degree Project (TDP) in 2009 as a demonstration program in partnership between the nonprofit Ascendium (then known as the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates) and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). TDP offered all first-time 9 th graders in half of MPS high schools $12,000 for college as “last-dollar” aid. Students could use the funds for college if they graduated from high school on time with a GPA of 2.5 and a class attendance rate of 90%. Also, as is the norm with free college programs, students had to fill out the FAFSA and have at least one dollar of unmet need. The aid could be used to attend any of the 66 public, in-state, two- or four-year colleges in Wisconsin. Ascendium provided up to $31 million to fund the grant and, as the main program administrator, sent regular letters to remind students about the program and its requirements. The organization also worked with school counselors to support students becoming eligible for the funds and preparing for college.

TDP was announced to students in the fall of 2011. Using anonymized data, we then tracked students’ high school, college, and life outcomes for eight years, and we recently received data extending through when students were roughly 22 years old. As a rare randomized trial, we could estimate the effects by comparing the control and treatment group outcomes. Here is what we found:

  • For students who met the performance requirements, the program increased graduation from two-year colleges by 3 percentage points . This might seem small, but the denominator here is comprised of low-income 9 th graders. Half of the control group did not even graduate from high school, let alone college. The effect amounts to a 25% increase in two-year degrees.
  • The framing and design of the program as free two-year college changed student decisions in ways consistent with what free college advocates suggest. The $12,000 maximum award amount was selected because it was sufficient to cover tuition and fees for a two-year college degree. The fact that TDP made two-year college free, but only reduced the cost of four-year college, was clearly communicated to students. This appears to explain one of our main results: Student enrollments shifted from four-year to two-year colleges. This is noteworthy given that students could use the funds at either two- or four-year colleges. In fact, students likely would have been able to use more of the $12,000 if they had shifted to four-year colleges. The only plausible reason for shifting to two-year colleges is that they were really attracted to the idea of free college.
  • The “early commitment” nature of the program had some modest positive effects on some high school outcomes . Students learned about TDP in their 9 th grade year, giving them time to change their high school behaviors and college plans. Although it did not improve high school academic achievement, we find that TDP increased college expectations and the steps students took to prepare for college. TDP recipients also reported working harder because of the program (even though this did not show up in the academic measures). This highlights the fact that free college might also help address not only college-going rates, but the long-term stagnancy in high school outcomes.
  • The merit requirements undermined the program’s effectiveness . Though the 2.5 GPA and 90% attendance and other requirements were arguably modest, only 21% of eligible students ended up meeting them. So, they ended up excluding many students. We also tested the two main ways that the merit requirements could have been helpful: (a) merit requirements might provide incentives for students to work hard during high school and better prepare for college, and (b) merit requirements might target aid to students who respond to it most. We find no evidence of either benefit. While students did work harder (see point [3] above), this appears to be due to other elements of the program, not the merit requirements.

Overall, these results suggest that aid is most effective when it is “open access”—that is, aid with early commitment and free college framing, but no merit requirements.

What about the evidence beyond Milwaukee?

Our study also reviews other research on financial aid, including federal aid, state merit aid programs, and the newer “promise scholarship” programs that mimic free college. Our study is not alone in finding that financial aid improves student outcomes. In fact, the vast majority of the most rigorous studies find positive effects on college attendance and college graduation. Given the strong average benefits of college, we can expect follow-up studies to show effects on employment earnings, voting, and other outcomes.

What about the costs? Open access aid is more expensive to be sure. More students receive aid and the aid levels per students are larger than traditional financial aid. Is it worth it? Our analysis suggests it is. We carried out new cost-benefit analyses of multiple programs, including TDP, but also other actively studied programs in: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Knox County, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and one statewide program in Nebraska. We also used estimates of the average effects of aid taken from prior literature reviews. All of these programs pass a cost-benefit test. That is, the effects on college outcomes, and the effects of college outcomes on future earnings, is much larger than the cost to the government and society as a whole. Moreover, it appears that benefits-per-dollar-of-cost are at least as high with open access aid as with more restricted programs. This means that open access aid provides greater total benefits to the community as a whole.

Back to the Free College Proposals

What do these results mean for President Biden’s and CP’s proposals? The table below provides a side-by-side comparison. The main difference is the level of detail. This reflects that the CP plan was designed to align with, and flesh out, the Biden campaign proposal. Perhaps the only substantive difference is that the CP proposal (and the Milwaukee program) includes private colleges. The Biden campaign documents exclude private colleges, though the American Families Plan just says “free community college,” signaling alignment with the CP plan. Both proposals are clearly in the category of open access aid.

There are numerous similarities between these provisions and the Milwaukee program that my team and I studied. All three programs make two-year college free (or nearly so) for all students without income requirements and through early commitment of aid. All three require the FAFSA and high school graduation. Importantly, unlike both the Biden and CP proposals, the Milwaukee program had merit requirements, which undermined its success. This is partly why our evidence is so relevant to the current debate.

Some might wonder why the president has scaled back the proposal to just free community college. This reflects that the idea of free college—even the “scaled back” version—is such a marked departure from past policy, especially at the federal level. Free community college alone would still be arguably the largest shift in federal higher education policy in the past half-century.

Caveats and Concluding Thoughts

We cannot make policy from evidence alone, but it can and should play a key role. Sometimes, policy ideas have such limited evidence of effectiveness that it is difficult to make any plausible case for a large-scale, national program. In other cases, there is enough promise for pilot studies and competitive grants to establish efficacy. With free college, we seem to be well beyond that point. In addition to decades of results on general financial aid programs, we have a growing number of studies on state and local programs that all show positive evidence—the “laboratory of democracy” at work. The idea of a large, federal free-college program therefore has more and more credibility.

A decade ago, it was not at all obvious that this is what the evidence would show. There was really no evidence on free college programs when we started this project back in 2009. Also, there were good reasons to expect that such a large increase in aid would suffer from “diminishing returns”—the idea that the next dollar is less effective than the previous one. This could have made free college more costly than the benefits could justify. Now, we know better.

I do still worry a bit about other factors and challenges. For example, the above analyses can only capture the immediate effects of financial aid, yet a federal free college program is such a marked departure in policy that it could alter political and market forces operating on higher education in unpredictable ways, perhaps even lowering college spending and quality. Also, if the proposal remains focused on community colleges, then this will shift students out of four-year colleges and into colleges that currently have very low completion rates. There are also other ways to increase college affordability and access that do not require free college (e.g., increased Pell Grants and income-based loan repayment), some of which target funds more narrowly to the most disadvantaged students. And there are many details to be worked out as the president’s allies in Congress try to generate sufficient support without (a) sacrificing core principles, or (b) creating new problems that can arise when grafting new federal programs on to widely varying state contexts.

Still, it is not often that an idea comes around that addresses a widely acknowledged problem and has both research support and a fair degree of bipartisan political support. The stars seem aligned to make some form of national free college a reality. The more evidence we see, the more that would seem to be a step forward.

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Why Education Should Be Free: Exploring the Benefits for a Progressive Society

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Written by Dan

Last updated February 13, 2024

The question of whether education, particularly higher education, should be free is a continuing debate marked by a multitude of opinions and perspectives.

Education stands as one of the most powerful tools for personal and societal advancement, and making it accessible to all could have profound impacts on a nation’s economic growth and social fabric.

Proponents of tuition-free education argue that it could create a better-educated workforce, improve the livelihoods of individuals, and contribute to overall economic prosperity.

However, the implementation of such a system carries complexity and considerations that spark considerable discourse among policymakers, educators, and the public.

Related : For more, check out our article on  The #1 Problem In Education  here.

A diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds are gathered in a vibrant, open space, eagerly engaging in learning activities and discussions. The atmosphere is filled with enthusiasm and curiosity, emphasizing the importance of accessible education for all

Within the debate on free education lies a range of considerations, including the significant economic benefits it might confer.

A well-educated populace can be the driving force behind innovation, entrepreneurship, and a competitive global stance, according to research.

Moreover, social and cultural benefits are also cited by advocates, who see free higher education as a stepping stone towards greater societal well-being and equality.

Nevertheless, the challenges in implementing free higher education often center around fiscal sustainability, the potential for increased taxes, and the restructuring of existing educational frameworks.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Free higher education could serve as a critical driver of economic growth and innovation.
  • It may contribute to social equality and cultural enrichment across communities.
  • Implementation of tuition-free higher education requires careful consideration of economic and structural challenges.

Related : For more, check out our article on  AI In Education  here.

The Economic Benefits of Free Education

Free education carries the potential for significant economic impact, notably by fostering a more qualified workforce and alleviating financial strains associated with higher education.

Boosting the Workforce with Skilled Workers

Free education initiatives can lead to a rise in college enrollment and graduation rates, as seen in various studies and practical implementations.

This translates into a larger pool of skilled workers entering the workforce, which is critical for the sustained growth of the economy. With more educated individuals, industries can innovate faster and remain competitive on a global scale.

The subsequent increase in productivity and creative problem-solving bolsters the country’s economic profile.

Reducing Student Loan Debt and Financial Insecurity

One of the most immediate effects of tuition-free education is the reduction of student loan debt . Students who graduate without the burden of debt have more financial freedom and security, enabling them to contribute economically through higher consumer spending and investments.

This financial relief also means that graduates can potentially enter the housing market earlier and save for retirement, both of which are beneficial for long-term economic stability.

Reducing this financial insecurity not only benefits individual lives but also creates a positive ripple effect throughout the economy.

Related : For more, check out our article on  Teaching For Understanding  here.

Social and Cultural Impacts

Free education stands as a cornerstone for a more equitable society, providing a foundation for individuals to reach their full potential without the barrier of cost.

It fosters an inclusive culture where access to knowledge and the ability to contribute meaningfully to society are viewed as inalienable rights.

Creating Equality and Expanding Choices

Free education mitigates the socioeconomic disparities that often dictate the quality and level of education one can attain.

When tuition fees are eliminated, individuals from lower-income families are afforded the same educational opportunities as their wealthier counterparts, leading to a more level playing field .

Expanding educational access enables all members of society to pursue a wider array of careers and life paths, broadening personal choices and promoting a diverse workforce.

Free Education as a Human Right

Recognizing education as a human right underpins the movement for free education. Human Rights Watch emphasizes that all children should have access to a quality, inclusive, and free education.

This aligns with international agreements and the belief that education is not a privilege but a right that should be safeguarded for all, regardless of one’s socioeconomic status.

Redistributions within society can function to finance the institutions necessary to uphold this right, leading to long-term cultural and social benefits.

Challenges and Considerations for Implementation

Implementing free education systems presents a complex interplay of economic and academic factors. Policymakers must confront these critical issues to develop sustainable and effective programs.

Balancing Funding and Taxpayer Impact

Funding for free education programs primarily depends on the allocation of government resources, which often requires tax adjustments .

Legislators need to strike a balance between providing sufficient funding for education and maintaining a level of taxation that does not overburden the taxpayers .

Studies like those from The Balance provide insight into the economic implications, indicating a need for careful analysis to avoid unintended financial consequences.

Ensuring Quality in Free Higher Education Programs

Merit and quality assurance become paramount in free college programs to ensure that the value of education does not diminish. Programs need structured oversight and performance metrics to maintain high academic standards.

Free college systems, by extending access, may risk over-enrollment, which can strain resources and reduce educational quality if not managed correctly.

Global Perspectives and Trends in Free Education

In the realm of education, several countries have adopted policies to make learning accessible at no cost to the student. These efforts often aim to enhance social mobility and create a more educated workforce.

Case Studies: Argentina and Sweden

Argentina has long upheld the principle of free university education for its citizens. Public universities in Argentina do not charge tuition fees for undergraduate courses, emphasizing the country’s commitment to accessible education.

This policy supports a key tenet of social justice, allowing a wide range of individuals to pursue higher education regardless of their financial situation.

In comparison, Sweden represents a prime example of advanced free education within Europe. Swedish universities offer free education not only to Swedish students but also to those from other countries within the European Union (EU).

For Swedes, this extends to include secondary education, which is also offered at no cost. Sweden’s approach exemplifies a commitment to educational equality and a well-informed citizenry.

International Approaches to Tuition-Free College

Examining the broader international landscape , there are diverse approaches to implementing tuition-free higher education.

For instance, some European countries like Spain have not entirely eliminated tuition fees but have kept them relatively low compared to the global average. These measures still align with the overarching goal of making education more accessible.

In contrast, there have been discussions and proposals in the United States about adopting tuition-free college programs, reflecting a growing global trend.

While the United States has not federally mandated free college education, there are initiatives, such as the Promise Programs, that offer tuition-free community college to eligible students in certain states, showcasing a step towards more inclusive educational opportunities.

Policy and Politics of Tuition-Free Education

The debate surrounding tuition-free education encompasses a complex interplay of bipartisan support and legislative efforts, with community colleges frequently at the policy’s epicenter.

Both ideological and financial considerations shape the trajectory of higher education policy in this context.

Bipartisan Support and Political Challenges

Bipartisan support for tuition-free education emerges from a recognition of community colleges as vital access points for higher education, particularly for lower-income families.

Initiatives such as the College Promise campaign reflect this shared commitment to removing economic barriers to education. However, political challenges persist, with Republicans often skeptical about the long-term feasibility and impact on the federal budget.

Such divisions underscore the politicized nature of the education discourse, situating it as a central issue in policy-making endeavors.

Legislative Framework and Higher Education Policy

The legislative framework for tuition-free education gained momentum under President Biden with the introduction of the American Families Plan .

This plan proposed substantial investments in higher education, particularly aimed at bolstering the role of community colleges. Central to this policy is the pledge to cover up to two years of tuition for eligible students.

The proposal reflects a significant step in reimagining higher education policy, though it requires navigating the intricacies of legislative procedures and fiscally conservative opposition to translate into actionable policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

This section addresses common queries regarding the prospect of free college education, its impact, and practical considerations for implementation.

What are the most compelling arguments for making college education free?

The most compelling arguments for tuition-free college highlight the removal of financial barriers, potential to increase social mobility, and a long-term investment in a more educated workforce , which can lead to economic growth.

How could the government implement free education policies without sacrificing quality?

To implement free education without compromising quality, governments need to ensure sustainable funding, invest in faculty, and enable effective administration. Such measures aim to maintain high standards while extending access.

In countries with free college education, what has been the impact on their economies and societies?

Countries with free college education have observed various impacts, including a more educated populace , increased rates of innovation, and in some instances, stronger economic growth due to a skilled workforce.

How does free education affect the accessibility and inclusivity of higher education?

Free education enhances accessibility and inclusivity by leveling the educational playing field, allowing students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue higher education regardless of their financial capability.

What potential downsides exist to providing free college education to all students?

Potential downsides include the strain on governmental budgets, the risk of oversaturating certain job markets, and the possibility that the value of a degree may diminish if too many people obtain one without a corresponding increase in jobs requiring higher education.

How might free education be funded, and what are the financial implications for taxpayers?

Free education would likely be funded through taxation, and its financial implications for taxpayers could range from increased taxes to reprioritization of existing budget funds. The scale of any potential tax increase would depend on the cost of the education programs and the economic benefits they’re anticipated to produce.

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College & Careers

Tuition-free college is critical to our economy

essay about higher education should be made free for all

Morley Winograd and Max Lubin

November 2, 2020, 13 comments.

essay about higher education should be made free for all

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To rebuild America’s economy in a way that offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, federal support for free college tuition should be a priority in any economic recovery plan in 2021.

Research shows that the private and public economic benefit of free community college tuition would outweigh the cost. That’s why half of the states in the country already have some form of free college tuition.

The Democratic Party 2020 platform calls for making two years of community college tuition free for all students with a federal/state partnership similar to the Obama administration’s 2015 plan .

It envisions a program as universal and free as K-12 education is today, with all the sustainable benefits such programs (including Social Security and Medicare) enjoy. It also calls for making four years of public college tuition free, again in partnership with states, for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

The Republican Party didn’t adopt a platform for the 2020 election, deferring to President Trump’s policies, which among other things, stand in opposition to free college. Congressional Republicans, unlike many of their state counterparts, also have not supported free college tuition in the past.

However, it should be noted that the very first state free college tuition program was initiated in 2015 by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican. Subsequently, such deep red states with Republican majorities in their state legislature such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas have adopted similar programs.

Establishing free college tuition benefits for more Americans would be the 21st-century equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration initiative.

That program not only created immediate work for the unemployed, but also offered skills training for nearly 8 million unskilled workers in the 1930s. Just as we did in the 20th century, by laying the foundation for our current system of universal free high school education and rewarding our World War II veterans with free college tuition to help ease their way back into the workforce, the 21st century system of higher education we build must include the opportunity to attend college tuition-free.

California already has taken big steps to make its community college system, the largest in the nation, tuition free by fully funding its California Promise grant program. But community college is not yet free to all students. Tuition costs — just more than $1,500 for a full course load — are waived for low-income students. Colleges don’t have to spend the Promise funds to cover tuition costs for other students so, at many colleges, students still have to pay tuition.

At the state’s four-year universities, about 60% of students at the California State University and the same share of in-state undergraduates at the 10-campus University of California, attend tuition-free as well, as a result of Cal grants , federal Pell grants and other forms of financial aid.

But making the CSU and UC systems tuition-free for even more students will require funding on a scale that only the federal government is capable of supporting, even if the benefit is only available to students from families that makes less than $125,000 a year.

It is estimated that even without this family income limitation, eliminating tuition for four years at all public colleges and universities for all students would cost taxpayers $79 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Education data . Consider, however, that the federal government  spent $91 billion  in 2016 on policies that subsidized college attendance. At least some of that could be used to help make public higher education institutions tuition-free in partnership with the states.

Free college tuition programs have proved effective in helping mitigate the system’s current inequities by increasing college enrollment, lowering dependence on student loan debt and improving completion rates , especially among students of color and lower-income students who are often the first in their family to attend college.

In the first year of the TN Promise , community college enrollment in Tennessee increased by 24.7%, causing 4,000 more students to enroll. The percentage of Black students in that state’s community college population increased from 14% to 19% and the proportion of Hispanic students increased from 4% to 5%.

Students who attend community college tuition-free also graduate at higher rates. Tennessee’s first Promise student cohort had a 52.6% success rate compared to only a 38.9% success rate for their non-Promise peers. After two years of free college tuition, Rhode Island’s college-promise program saw its community college graduation rate triple and the graduation rate among students of color increase ninefold.

The impact on student debt is more obvious. Tennessee, for instance, saw its applications for student loans decrease by 17% in the first year of its program, with loan amounts decreasing by 12%. At the same time, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications soared, with 40% of the entire nation’s increase in applications originating in that state in the first year of their Promise program.

Wage inequality by education, already dreadful before the pandemic, is getting worse. In May, the unemployment rate among workers without a high school diploma was nearly triple the rate of workers with a bachelor’s degree. No matter what Congress does to provide support to those affected by the pandemic and the ensuing recession, employment prospects for far too many people in our workforce will remain bleak after the pandemic recedes. Today, the fastest growing sectors of the economy are in health care, computers and information technology. To have a real shot at a job in those sectors, workers need a college credential of some form such as an industry-recognized skills certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The surest way to make the proven benefits of higher education available to everyone is to make college tuition-free for low and middle-income students at public colleges, and the federal government should help make that happen.

Morley Winograd is president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition . Max Lubin is CEO of Rise , a student-led nonprofit organization advocating for free college.  

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our  guidelines  and  contact us .

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Genia Curtsinger 2 years ago 2 years ago

Making community college free to those who meet the admission requirements would help many people. First of all, it would make it easy for students and families, for instance; you go to college and have to pay thousands of dollars to get a college education, but if community college is free it would help so you could be saving money and get a college education for free, with no cost at all. It would make … Read More

Making community college free to those who meet the admission requirements would help many people. First of all, it would make it easy for students and families, for instance; you go to college and have to pay thousands of dollars to get a college education, but if community college is free it would help so you could be saving money and get a college education for free, with no cost at all. It would make it more affordable to the student and their families.

Therefore I think people should have free education for those who meet the admission requirements.

nothing 2 years ago 2 years ago

I feel like colleges shouldn’t be completely free, but a lot more affordable for people so everyone can have a chance to have a good college education.

Jaden Wendover 2 years ago 2 years ago

I think all colleges should be free, because why would you pay to learn?

Samantha Cole 2 years ago 2 years ago

I think college should be free because there are a lot of people that want to go to college but they can’t pay for it so they don’t go and end up in jail or working as a waitress or in a convenience store. I know I want to go to college but I can’t because my family doesn’t make enough money to send me to college but my family makes too much for financial aid.

Nick Gurrs 2 years ago 2 years ago

I feel like this subject has a lot of answers, For me personally, I believe tuition and college, in general, should be free because it will help students get out of debt and not have debt, and because it will help people who are struggling in life to get a job and make a living off a job.

NO 3 years ago 3 years ago

I think college tuition should be free. A lot of adults want to go to college and finish their education but can’t partly because they can’t afford to. Some teens need to work at a young age just so they can save money for college which I feel they shouldn’t have to. If people don’t want to go to college then they just can work and go on with their lives.

Not saying my name 3 years ago 3 years ago

I think college tuition should be free because people drop out because they can’t pay the tuition to get into college and then they can’t graduate and live a good life and they won’t get a job because it says they dropped out of school. So it would be harder to get a job and if the tuition wasn’t a thing, people would live an awesome life because of this.

Brisa 3 years ago 3 years ago

I’m not understanding. Are we not agreeing that college should be free, or are we?

m 2 years ago 2 years ago

it shouldnt

Trevor Everhart 3 years ago 3 years ago

What do you mean by there is no such thing as free tuition?

Olga Snichernacs 3 years ago 3 years ago

Nice! I enjoyed reading.

Anonymous Cat 3 years ago 3 years ago

Tuition-Free: Free tuition, or sometimes tuition free is a phrase you have heard probably a good number of times. … Therefore, free tuition to put it simply is the opportunity provide to students by select universities around the world to received a degree from their institution without paying any sum of money for the teaching.

Mister B 3 years ago 3 years ago

There is no such thing as tuition free.

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Should a College Education Be Available to All People for Free?


The cost of college education in the United States has been on the rise in the past two decades. Many students are finding it hard to graduate because of financial constraints, even though the government offers financial support. Many learners avoid the trap of leaving school with huge debts that might take them many years to clear. This issue has been debated in various sectors, with proponents and opponents presenting different arguments for either supporting or opposing it. Proponents believe that free education will strengthen the labor market, grow the economy, and increase equality in society. On the contrary, opponents argue that it will devalue the college degree and overburden the taxpayers, as well as the federal and state governments. Countries that offer free tertiary education report both positive and negative impacts. Arguments from both sides originate from the results of surveys conducted on the positive and negative effects of free college education in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. College education should be free because it will widen the workforce, boost the economy, decrease inequality, and allow students to focus more on their careers.

Why College Education Should Free

Widening of the workforce.

Providing free education for everyone in America will widen the workforce by increasing the number of qualified people in the labor market. Technological advancement has introduced the concept of automation in many jobs that involve simple tasks. However, there is a need for more qualified individuals with analytical and creative thinking skills to do the work that machines cannot do (Winograd and Lubin). A free college education would create a large pool of graduates with technical skills; this would broaden the labor force and increase its agility. Moreover, availability of qualified candidates would make it easier for industries to recruit, hire, train, and retain highly-qualified individuals with a wide range of capabilities (Kromydas 4). The majority of jobs in contemporary society require advanced technical skills that can only be acquired in college (Goger). In that regard, free college education would create a better-educated workforce that would fill the numerous positions that are available in the various economic sectors.

Economic Boost

Another reason why college education should be free is the role it would play in boosting the economy. Government statistics have shown that students graduate with an average debt of $31,172 that takes several years to repay fully (Winograd and Lubin). Moreover, the interest that accrues on their education loans makes it harder for them to focus on other life aspects such as starting a family or buying a house. Free education would allow students to graduate without debt, and therefore, enhance their readiness to earn, save, and invest (Winograd and Lubin). The economy would benefit immensely if the money that people use to repay their student debts went toward investments or starting businesses. In addition, instead of paying for their children’s college education, parents could use that money to invest in their retirement or the stock market. Either way, college for all would provide a financial incentive that would save a lot of money. Habits such as consumer spending and investing are key in the stimulation of economic growth (Winograd and Lubin). Many students are afraid of leaving school with huge debts, and so, they avoid going to college altogether. Decreased graduation rates lower the number of professionals available to fill the vacancies that are available in various industries.

Increased Equality

Inequality in the education sector is a pervasive challenge that could be solved by the introduction of free college education for all. Students from low-income families find it difficult to afford tertiary education because it is expensive ( Financial Stress ). In that regard, equal opportunities are unavailable for young people to pursue careers of their choice. There are many bright individuals who fail to make their contribution to society because of the lack of money to go to school. A lack of education is associated with low wages and a below-average lifestyle (Kromydas 6). States that have free college tuition programs record positive outcomes: inequality has declined significantly and the rates of graduation have increased (Winograd and Lubin). The Tennessee Promise scholarship program increased college enrolment by 24.7%; the admission of African American and Hispanic students rose by 5% and 1% respectively (Winograd and Lubin). The graduation rate in the program was 52.6%, while that of students who finance their education was 38.9% (Winograd and Lubin). The rates of graduation among students who attend college on scholarship are higher than those of students who pay for it.

Increased Focus on Studies and Careers

Proponents of free college education argue that it is necessary because it will allow students to focus on their education and careers, rather than looking for tuition money. Some of the main causes of stress among college students include the high cost of education, the means of repaying their loans, challenging academic work, relationships, and securing employment after school ( Financial Stress ). Research has shown that financial constraints cause worry, anxiety, and even depression among students. The sustained stress of thinking about how to pay for tuition and the burgeoning debts after graduation diverts their focus from their education to the search for money ( Financial Stress ). These challenges crowd their brain’s ability to focus on coursework and their long-term professional goals. As a result, the rates of graduation decline immensely as many of the students drop out for lack of money.

A 2015 study conducted by the Ohio State University on student wellness revealed that approximately 70% of students experience stress because of the poor state of their finances (Winograd and Lubin). Anxiety originates from thinking about ways to pay for their tuition and monthly expenses. Moreover, 32% of the students interviewed stated that at certain times, they had to abdicate their studies so that they could look for money to pay their debts (Winograd and Lubin). These challenges could be mitigated by a free college education for all.

Opposing Arguments

Opponents of free college education argue that it is impracticable because it would devalue college education and overburden the taxpayers, as well as the state and federal governments. They have criticized the proponents for presenting arguments that though valid, have little basis in reality. For example, they support it and fail to give workable recommendations on how to get the money for the program without overburdening the state and federal governments. It would be inappropriate to increase taxes so as to earn money to fund a free education program. Moreover, they ignore how it would affect the value of a college degree.

Increased Pressure on Governments and Taxpayers

One of the main arguments against free college for all is the financial pressure it would place on the federal and state governments, and taxpayers. Such a program would require the government to find extra money to finance it, taking into consideration the likely increase in enrolment. Free college education means that Americans would be required to pay more taxes for the government to get enough money to implement and sustain the program (DiMartino 261). Higher education is not a universal right but a private pursuit that is usually done in order to get an economic return (McCowan, 111). Therefore, the government does not a moral obligation to make it free for everyone. The uncertainty of who will be affected by the increases in tax is a source of discomfort and opposition among Americans who think that the idea is not viable (Goger). The most realistic option would be increasing and creating new taxes, thus burdening the taxpayers who are already paying taxes that are considered relatively high in comparison with other developed economies.

Devaluation of the College Degree

The value of a college degree would decline significantly if education was made free for all. Currently, many people rate a degree highly mainly because of the dedication and struggle involved in its attainment. The stress of financing one’s education through loans and taking multiple jobs makes it an invaluable pursuit (Goger). Free education may erode its quality because students would not feel then need to work hard as the government would pay for their tuition. Moreover, the majority of them would not be motivated to graduate quickly because of the lack of an urgency to reduce debt. Therefore, laziness and indifference to education would increase because of the elimination of the financial pressure of mounting student debt (Goger). This renders the idea of free college education for all a bad idea that should not be implemented. Moreover, free education would not solve the inequality that exists in the education system because of social and cultural factors (DiMartino 274). In that regard, free education would be beneficial to a small percentage of students who cannot pursue higher education because of financial constraints. This would exclude young people who do not go to college because of social and cultural factors.

The arguments that free education might devalue a college degree and put pressure on governments and taxpayers is highly flawed. First, free education would increase competition in the labor market because a higher number of graduates would compel organizations to raise their hiring and recruitment standards (Goger). Therefore, students would be more motivated than before to attain excellence in their education in order to increase the chances of pursing the careers of their choice. Moreover, there are many people who pursue alternative careers because of the lack of money to pay for tertiary education. It is highly unlikely that the program would devalue a college degree. This phenomenon has not been observed in countries that offer free college education, such as Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

Opponents also argue that free education would put pressure on state and federal governments, and taxpayers. This argument is based on the assumption that the only way for the federal government to finance the program is through raising taxes. However, there are other alternatives that can be applied.

It is estimated that even without this family income limitation, eliminating tuition for four years at all public colleges and universities for all students would cost taxpayers $79 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Education data . Consider, however, that the federal government spent $91 billion in 2016 on policies that subsidized college attendance. At least some of that could be used to help make public higher education institutions tuition-free in partnership with the states. (Winograd and Lubin)

The government could also reevaluate its spending in various sectors in favor of free education and enact more stringent policies that seal the loopholes that wealthy individuals and organizations use to avoid paying taxes.

Utopia and Free College Education

Thomas More taught that in a utopian society, governments focus all resources on the provision of services that promote the safety and welfare of its citizens. Such civilizations are characterized by equality as everyone has access to opportunities for personal and professional advancement, and they are treated with dignity (More). Free college education can be viewed as one of the ways that the US can achieve a utopian society: it will promote public interests, accord people dignity, encourage individual development, and support the improvement of people’s welfare (McCowan 115). It would provide a way for people to live with dignity by eradicating ignorance, pursuing careers of their choice, and serving society.

College education should be free because it will widen the workforce, boost the economy, decrease inequality, and allow students to focus more on their careers. There are several downsides though: there is a possibility of devaluing the college degree and placing financial pressure on taxpayers and the state and federal governments. However, the impact on the education system, the economy, people’s lives, and the society at large outweigh the shortcomings. This conclusion has limitations; first, it is based on the assumption that skills can only be taught in college. Secondly, it disregards the importance of encouraging young people to venture into entrepreneurship as an alternative to formal education. Many successful entrepreneurs have reiterated on several occasions that they do not usually consider academic qualifications when hiring. Their main focus is on the individual’s creativity, thinking capability, and the potential to solve complex problems. It is important for Congress to support the provision of free college education by enacting laws that support it. Otherwise, the American economy might not be able to compete effectively with other developed nations that offer free education and that have a highly-qualified and academically diverse workforce.

Works Cited

DiMartino, Lauren A. “ The “Free College” Illusion: How State Tuition Support Programs are Widening the Opportunity Gap. ” Georgetown Journal on Poverty, Law, and Policy , vol. 25, no. 2, 2018, pp. 258-301.

“ Financial Stress Prevents College Students from Graduating: What Can We Do? ” Scholarship America , 2019.

Goger, Annelies. “ Free College Won’t Be Enough to Prepare Americans for the Future of Work. ” Brookings , 2019.

Kromydas, Theocharis. “ Rethinking Higher Education and its Relationship with Social Inequalities: Past Knowledge, Present State, and Future Potential. ” Palgrave Communications , vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-12.

McCowan, Tristan. “ Is There a Universal Right to Higher Education? ” British Journal of Educational Studies , vol. 60. No. 2, 2012, pp. 111-128.

More, Thomas. “ Utopia. ” The Project Gutenberg , 2000.

Winograd, Morley, and Max Lubin. “ Tuition-Free College is Critical to Our Economy. ” EdSource, 2020.

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The Only Way to Save Higher Education Is to Make It Free

College was already a financial house of cards. Then coronavirus hit.

essay about higher education should be made free for all

By Claire Bond Potter

Dr. Potter is a professor of history.

In January 2020, while I was in New Hampshire canvassing for Elizabeth Warren, a campaign organizer urged me to tell voters why I supported her. For me, that was easy. “As a college teacher,” I said when someone answered the door, “I believe that higher education is a house of cards because Americans won’t tax ourselves to support it.”

I didn’t know how right I was, or how quickly my words would bear out.

Two months later, Covid-19 closed American colleges and universities, and the cards came tumbling down. Millions of dollars in refunded housing and dining fees created yawning budget gaps. And the crisis isn’t over, especially if students don’t return in the fall. In the United States, tuition payments represent , on average, about a quarter of a public college’s budget, and about 35 percent of a private college’s. For many, it is far more.

The crisis highlights the unjust, unsustainable fact that higher education is surviving on ever higher tuition payments — and, going forward, will most likely lean even harder on students and their families to make ends meet. The frank conversation that Bernie Sanders and Senator Warren started during the primary season has now become a crisis. We urgently need to change how we pay for college, and that starts with removing the burden of tuition from working families.

Will college be free under a Democratic president? Probably not. But we can reduce the bill significantly if we imagine that education as part of an economic New Deal. That means more than just making college free or inexpensive for most students. It means re-evaluating the place that higher education occupies in our society.

Financing tuition through taxes works for other countries. In 2014, Germany abolished tuition for all students from the European Union. Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark charge no tuition for all European Union students, and provide low-interest loans to cover other college expenses: in Sweden, at a rate of just 0.13 percent . In Australia and Britain , public tuition is half what Americans pay, and in Israel, a 10th. In Australia, students repay loans as a percentage of income when they reach a livable income threshold.

Charging tuition was a political decision, one embraced by city, state and federal politicians as voters pushed for lower and lower taxes.

The United States also once financed education as a public good. In 1888, the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., began to forgive tuition in exchange for two years of teaching in Virginia’s public schools. Federal land grant universities established after the Civil War were free for decades, and remained low cost until the 1980s. The City University of New York was free until 1976. Stanford was free to California residents for 30 years after it opened its doors in 1891.

Charging tuition was a political decision, one embraced by city, state and federal politicians as voters pushed for lower and lower taxes in the 1960s and ’70s. California led the way. As governor from 1967 to 1975, Ronald Reagan ended free tuition at the University of California, cutting higher education funding by 20 percent and declaring that taxpayers should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” As president, Reagan made this national policy, galvanizing the shift to tuition-dependence , and student loans, that we live with today.

Public universities took the biggest hit . Between 1987 and 2012, public funding dropped by 25 to 30 percent. And the cutting continues. Last year, Alaska cut its higher education budget by $135 million, more than the entire sum that supported three campuses.

From 1980 to 2014, tuition increased nationally by 260 percent , more than twice the rate of other consumer expenses. Federal policy supported a tuition-based revenue system by shifting funding to student loans; by 2013, they accounted for over half of the $75 billion federal higher education budget. Less than $3.8 billion was dedicated to funding educational infrastructure, most fulfilling federal obligations to historically black and tribal colleges.

In 2009, the Obama administration expanded Pell grants for the poorest students , mitigating the effect of state-level cuts. But it left the tuition model intact and failed to articulate higher education as a location for infrastructure investment, or as a public good on a par with health care, child care, social security and national defense.

And college is, more than ever, a gateway to the middle class . So Americans have continued to pay — with salaries, savings and loans — until they are at the breaking point.

Critics point to waste, luxury spending and administrative bloat as the problem, and suggest that colleges can simply rebalance their budgets. But the truth is more complex . As we feed the tuition beast with federal dollars, state governments raid education budgets further, raise tuition and cut support for infrastructure like libraries and technology. Deferred building maintenance , often for historic structures, is at a crisis point on many campuses.

Even before coronavirus hit, higher education was entering a financial crisis.

What about endowments? Again, it’s not that easy. Those funds are spoken for. No endowment, as the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, put it , is structured as rainy day savings. Endowments keep buildings open, pays faculty and funds — you guessed it — tuition. Around 22 percent of a private college’s budget comes from endowment income . But among schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report , the median endowment is $65.1 million. Ten colleges have endowments of less than a $1 million.

Even before coronavirus hit, higher education was entering a financial crisis. Consulting companies can tell you how likely a college is to survive, or merge with another institution, before your child graduates. In 2019, until a squad of lawyers stepped in, one company planned to release a list of 946 borderline insolvent institutions . Antioch, Hampshire, Sweet Briar, and Bennett narrowly averted extinction, but between 2016 and 2020, more than 60 other colleges did not. Five more have buckled in the last three months.

The coronavirus crisis will simply speed up the implosion of higher education. The University of Maryland pegs its losses at $80 million , the California State system, at over $337 million , and the University of Michigan up to nearly $1 billion . By some estimates the $14 billion awarded to higher education under the CARES Act falls short of current needs by at least $46.6 billion and, if you count projected lost tuition revenue for the fall, several hundred billion. Simultaneously, state legislatures are slashing education — again — to reduce ballooning state deficits.

Non-tuition income — research hospitals, NCAA television contracts, summer institutes, conference services, sports camps — has likewise withered over the last few months. So has tuition from abroad. Foreign students, already intimidated by the Trump administration’s immigration policies , now find Covid-19 an even more imposing deterrent.

If colleges are in a bind, students and their families have it even worse. The tuition model had brought poor and middle-class students to their knees long before Covid-19. It is not possible for most to save enough for college, so they borrow; they cannot live on what they borrow, so they work . I teach teenagers who fall asleep after working a night shift at minimum wage. One undergraduate, who worked three gig jobs, was repeatedly absent and hungry. “I have never worked so hard and been so financially insecure,” that student said, ashamed and in tears.

The tuition model is taking food out of students’ mouths. When students lost their jobs because of Covid-19, colleges became relief agencies, paying out millions for food and rent. Distributing wireless hot spots for distance learning, we learned how many students had no reliable technology beyond a mobile phone. We learned that many had no money to get home, and in some cases, had no home.

Since 1970, when Elizabeth Warren paid $50 for her last semester of public college, tuition has become as confusing as health insurance or a credit card agreement.

The irony is that we know how to do this because higher education is already a relief agency. Under normal conditions, almost half of students are food insecure, and 22 percent are routinely hungry; 64 percent are housing insecure and 15 percent are homeless — almost 20 percent in California . My own university has a department called Student Support and Crisis Management. Funding food banks, emergency housing loans and subsidizing psychiatric and medical care is now part of where tuition goes on all campuses.

Families are urged to comparison shop for good deals on college. But since 1970, when Elizabeth Warren paid $50 for her last semester of public college, tuition has become as confusing as health insurance or a credit card agreement. It’s hard even to know what it costs. In 2018 , 84 percent of American undergraduates at four-year public institutions and 90 percent at private ones, were granted tuition discounts. But that doesn’t allow students or their families to plan: Financial aid is recalculated every year as tuition rises and institutions reassess a family’s ability to pay.

So they take out more loans. By 2019, students, their parents and their grandparents had signed away over $1.5 trillion .

These loans — so easy to get, so difficult to understand or repay — conceal the fact that, regardless of how much financial aid is available, the majority of students cannot pay tuition. Almost half of colleges are only affordable for families with incomes over $160,000, 35 percent for students whose families make more than $100,000. Imagine families budgeting for that while also suffering economically from what may be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

So what must change? To start, public colleges and universities should be truly public and tuition-free; private ones, a crucial and longstanding resource, should be discounted by the cost of a public education. Federal loans should be generous, interest-free and forgivable, perhaps in exchange for national service. To paraphrase my late friend , the historian Jesse Lemisch, we need a federal New Deal for higher education, supported by tax dollars, that breaks the stranglehold tuition has on American families.

But addressing college costs is not just about lowering tuition fees. It is also about finding a way to make higher education financially sustainable. The first step to doing that is to recognize how education expenses like food, housing, salaries, health care, technology, libraries and pensions — as well as instruction — are tightly interwoven with the overall economy.

Every economic plank on Joe Biden’s 2020 Democratic platform should be linked to higher education policy, and policy proposals should be evaluated for how they contribute to making higher education affordable for students and the institutions themselves. National health care, robust Social Security reform, infrastructure investment, affordable housing, minimum basic incomes — can have a positive impact on the higher-education burden borne by working families. They create dignified, healthy lives for students. They release colleges from paying the cost of health and retirement benefits for employees. And they help to create good, full-time jobs.

Covid-19 has presented us with an unexpected choice: to use this crisis as an opportunity for realistic, multitiered, reform. Above all, we must restore higher education as a human right. That will depend on more than making college free — it will depend on reminding ourselves that we need to pay taxes for the public good.

Claire Bond Potter ( @TenuredRadical ) is a professor of history at the New School and the co-executive editor of Public Seminar.

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Higher Education Should Be Free for Everyone

While K-12 education is free in the USA, paying for higher education is a struggle for most Americans. For those whose household income is not high enough to pay for college immediately, there are several options. They can either start saving money from the child’s early years, take student loans, or work at several jobs while studying. Still, there are people who cannot afford higher education through any of these ways. As Johnson claims, “the rapidly rising rates of college and university tuition is putting higher education, even in our “public” tax-supported institutions, beyond the reach of many in the nation’s middle class” (11). This situation is clamant for the USA, as the country strives to achieve equality. If education is accessible only for those who were lucky to be born in wealthy families, social disparities will persist. The reform of the higher education system might be a step forward for the country as all the society is going to benefit from this.

It is evident that advancement in the education system leads to rise in the quality of life of society. The question is how making education free of charge at all levels is going to improve its quality. First of all, it will boost competition, which is a driving force for development. American higher education is somewhat competitive today, but it remains unfair as long as finances are one of the criteria. Financial disparity excludes a large number of people from the competition for higher education. According to Bowen, “denying a large part of the population the opportunity for personal development through higher education would be indefensible” (20). Society must see the threat of refusing the opportunity as there is always the chance that the person who has the potential to invent the cure from cancer, for example, may not be able to afford education.

Furthermore, governments, by financing education, acquire the opportunity to manage it and to set demand on the universities. This reform might lead to the fair distribution of students across the spheres and geographical regions according to the need of each of them. The private education sector promotes going for popular programs disregarding national demand, while other areas remain significantly understaffed. Thus, governmental management of higher education can enhance the situation in the job market.

The opponents of free education express their concern about the problem of its implementation. Education, especially if it strives to provide high-quality training, requires significant resource investments. Goksu and Goksu define the financing of higher education as one that “consists of a set of methods to obtain resources needed by higher education institutions in order to maintain their functions” (1154). First of all, a large number of teaching staff should be employed and sufficiently paid. In addition to this, universities should be technically equipped, including sports and residence facilities, information technologies, and scientific laboratories.

Therefore the concept of being “free” for citizens implies that it is financed either by the government or by local communities, such as states. Thus it means that it can be accessible only technically; in fact, education can be financed from taxes that people pay. This is the point where controversy arises, as most people who are not going to get a higher education degree to oppose paying additional taxes for it. Even people who are advocating for the free single-payer healthcare system financed by general tax do not apply the same idea is to education. Unlike medicine, education is a choice, and those who do not choose it do not desire to take part in its sponsorship.

Implementation of a governmentally financed system of higher education, despite being a significant improvement, will require substantial investment, and those who state that it will considerably cost to the tax-payers are not mistaken. Yet, it does not mean that it should not be done even with sacrifices. The primary justification for free higher education is that, despite significant initial investments, the system is going to become self-sustainable. The university graduates, paying the tax from their salaries during their careers, will pay back the expense and take part in financing the currently studying.

Higher education is one of the critical determinants that increase personal income. As Karpio et al. Claim, “education has the greatest positive influence on the differences between the income distributions while being the most discriminatory attribute” (969). That is why the education tax percentage applied to salary should vary depending on the salary level. Thus, those with higher incomes, including the majority of college graduates, will pay most of the education tax. Such a system will protect people without education from the extra expense, but a small amount of tax will remain on them. Even if they do not use free education, they will still benefit from the education reform.

As it is stated above, the reform in education financing will enhance its quality. Besides, society should view education improvement as the primary objective, which will influence not only those who are getting it but every single citizen. According to Goksu and Goksu, advancement in education contributes to improvements in the socio-cultural structure and economy, which increase the level of service that citizens can enjoy (1152). Better scientific development, enhanced quality of care, and improved leadership in politics will lead to advances in the quality of life of society. Moreover, education reform can balance the current job market situation and provide employment justified by national and state demand.

Educated people are the most valuable human resource of the nation, and they comprise its significant intellectual potential. Qualitative higher education should not be viewed as an instrument for improving life only for those who get it, but as a tremendous economic and political good for the whole society. Educational reform may lead to positive changes, and it is worth paying for living in a better world. Nevertheless, this progress may come at a considerable cost for tax-payers. The politicians who take the initiative of educational reform need to take a number of unpopular decisions, such as tax increase, and they may also face opposition from universities. Nevertheless, free education has the power to transform society from a long-term perspective, improve the quality of life, and combat social disparities.

Paying the tuition fee is unaffordable for many representatives of the middle class, as well as for most of the people below the poverty line. The implementation of free higher education can diminish economic disparities and become the solution to the problem, but it causes severe opposition. Tax-payers who do not pursue higher education degrees are not willing to pay additional taxes. That is why the reform needs several unpopular decisions, which will have a positive effect in the future. The self-sustainability of the system is a matter of time as the graduates will cover the expenses from their salaries. For other citizens, education reform will bring the improvement of their quality of life and promote a better society.

Works Cited

Bowen, Howard. Investment in Learning: The Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education . Routledge, 2018.

Goksu, Alper, and Gonca Gungor Goksu. “A Comparative Analysis of Higher Education Financing in Different Countries.” Procedia Economics and Finance , vol. 26, 2015, pp. 1152–1158., Web.

Johnson, Daniel M. “Tuition Crisis: The Costs and Financing of Public Higher Education.” The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education , 2018, pp. 11–25., Web.

Carpio, K., et al. “The Quantile Decomposition of Personal Income Distributions in the USA .” Acta Physica Polonica A , vol. 129, no. 5, 2016, pp. 965-970., Web.

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‘We ignore the fact that the wealthiest young people get to start life with a considerable head start.’

University should be free for all students, not just the wealthiest

We now know that 10% of the wealthiest students get to go to university for free. This compounds inequality

A dvocates of the current university tuition fee system in Britain argue it is fair and progressive because only a fraction of students will ever pay the government back in full. Until graduates make more than £25,000, they pay nothing, and thereafter – once in higher-income work – they pay no more than 9% of their salary. Of course, interest continues to accrue, but only around 30% of students will pay back all of their loan .

The problem with the view that tuition fees are progressive is that we only look at those students who take out loans. According to a report published by the Intergenerational Foundation , we now know that at least 10% of the wealthiest students from the UK have their fees paid upfront by their parents. At Oxbridge, the percentage climbs to 16%. This means they avoid accruing the considerable interest paid by their less well-off peers.

This confounds higher education policymakers, who assume that students and their families will make decisions rationally. After all, it doesn’t make sense to pay tuition upfront, since there’s a considerable chance that at least some of the debt will be written off by the government.

What is missing from the tuition fees discussion is awareness of the multiple functions of taxation. Generating revenue is only one reason to tax citizens; another is to incentivise certain investments over others. The current system of higher education fees has led, for example, to the disinvestment in vocational further education among cohorts who could potentially benefit from these courses, since university courses provide access to loans upfront with lower risk.

Taxation also provides a mechanism for societies to prevent the build up of unearned economic advantages among the children of the wealthy. In other words, a genuinely progressive tax system can mitigate the development of aristocracies.

Ultimately, the current university tuition fees system compounds economic inequality. French economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated this is largely a product of the intergenerational transfer of capital due to a range of factors, but especially insufficient taxation , which enables the unearned inheritance of wealth. That 10% of wealthy students – children of rich parents – are qualitatively different than their student peers. Rich students, unlike any other group, get to go to university for free.

This is why the Intergenerational Foundation report’s conclusion that a free, public university system paid through direct grants would be “too expensive” is wrong. Citing the truism that free higher education would benefit middle-class students more often than others, their recommendations ignore the fact that it would also benefit everyone else. All students should be encouraged to enrol on courses according to need, function and for its own sake.

More importantly, we ignore the fact that the wealthiest young people get to start life with a considerable head start, while their classmates begin their working lives in considerable debt.

Accordingly, the lesson from the government’s tuition fee experiment is a simple one: tax wealthy working adults to invest properly in public universities. That way every student can have what wealthy students at present take for granted: access to free higher education.

Eric Lybeck is a presidential fellow at Manchester University’s Institute of Education

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Should university education be free?

Education has positive benefits for the rest of society. If university education is left to market forces, there may be under-provision, and the economy may suffer from a lack of skilled graduates. Furthermore, in a free market, higher education would become the preserve of wealthy families who can afford to send their children to university. Therefore there is a strong case for the government providing higher education free at the point of use.


However, others argue the positive externalities of higher education are limited, and the prime beneficiaries of a university degree are the graduates who can command a higher paying job. If the external benefits of many degrees are limited, government spending may be misallocated in offering relatively expensive university education. Rather than fund 3-4 year university degrees, governments may be able to get a better return from spending money on primary education and vocational training – training which is more relevant to the needs of the economy.


More details

In recent years, the UK government has sought to increase the amount students pay for studying at university. In the UK, the government have phased out grants and introduced top-up fees. With tuition fees and rising living costs, students could end up paying £50,000 for a three-year degree, and leave university with significant debts.

Some argue this is a mistake. Charging for university education will deter students and leave the UK with a shortfall of skilled labour – and arguably this will damage the long-term prospects of the UK economy. Furthermore, charging to study at university will increase inequality of opportunity as students with low-income parents will be more likely to be deterred from going to university.

Arguments for free university education

  • Positive externalities of higher education . Generally, university education does offer some external benefits to society. Higher education leads to a more educated and productive workforce. Countries with high rates of university education generally have higher levels of innovation and productivity growth. Therefore, there is a justification for the government subsidising higher education.
  • Equality . There is also a powerful argument that university education should be free to ensure equality of opportunity. If students have to pay for university education, this may dissuade them. In theory, students could take out loans or work part-time, but this may be sufficient to discourage students from studying and instead may enter the job market earlier.
  • Increased specialisation of work . The global economy has forced countries, such as the UK to specialise in higher-tech and higher value-added products and services. The UK’s biggest export industries include pharmaceuticals, organic chemicals, optical and surgical instruments, and nuclear technology (see: what does the UK produce? ). Therefore, there is a greater need for skilled graduates who can contribute to these high-tech industries.
  • Education is a merit good . One characteristic of a merit good is that people may underestimate the benefits of studying and undervalue higher education. Government provision can encourage people to study.
  • Young people facing rising costs . In recent years, we have seen a rise in the cost of living. House prices and rents have risen faster than inflation. This means young people are struggling to meet living costs – even in work. The thought of student debt on top of high living costs, may dissuade people from studying. Free tuition fees is a way to restore the income inequality across generations.
  • Non-economic benefits of education . It is tempting to think of university education in purely monetary terms. But graduates can also gain skills and awareness of civic institutions which offer intangible benefits to society.

benefits university

Source: Times Higher Education

Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education (2009) Professor McMahon examined the “private non-market benefits” for individuals of having degrees.

This includes better personal health and improved cognitive development in their children, alongside the “social non-market benefits”, such as lower spending on prisons and greater political stability.

  • If you wished to evaluate this point, we could ask – is it university education which causes these civic virtues or is it because university education is dominated by middle classes who are more likely to have better health e.t.c. already?

Arguments against free university education

  • Opportunity cost . If we spend billions on free university education, there is an opportunity cost of higher taxes or less spending elsewhere. Arguably, there is a greater social benefit from providing vocational training – e.g. so people could become plumbers, electricians e.t.c. There is often a real shortage of these skills in an economy. The UK Commission for skills and education report significant skills shortages in the basic ‘core generic skills’ such as literacy, numeracy and communication skills. These skill shortages are prominent in industries like building, health care, plumbing, social care and construction. The problem is not a shortage of graduates with art degrees, but a shortage of lower-level vocational skills. (See: BBC – skills shortage in the UK ) Therefore, there is a case for charging students to study at university – allowing higher public spending to tackle more basic skill shortages.
  • Do we have too many graduates? In recent decades there has been a rapid rise in the number of graduates. But many graduates are now leaving university to take jobs which don’t require a degree. A study by the ONS found that nearly 50% of workers who left university in the past five years are doing jobs which don’t require a degree. ( Telegraph link ) Therefore, it is a mistake to continue to fund the public expansion of university education because the economy doesn’t need more graduates as much as other vocational skills.
  • Higher quality of education . The rapid rise in university numbers means that greater pressure is being put on university resources. Since the government is struggling to increase real spending, there is a danger that university education and research may suffer, causing UK education to lag behind other countries. If universities can charge students, it will help maintain standards, quality of teaching and the reputation of UK universities.
  • Makes people value education more . If people have to pay to go to university, you could argue that they would value education more. If higher education is free, it may encourage students to take an easy three years of relaxation.
  • Signalling function of higher education . Arguably, higher education acts as a signal to employers that graduates have greater capacity. As a consequence, people who gain a degree, end up with a relatively higher salary. Therefore, if they financially gain from studying at university, it is perhaps fair they pay part of the cost. This is especially important for middle-class families, who send a higher proportion of people to higher education.

Another issue is whether we need 50% of 18-year-olds to go to university . The increase in student numbers is a significant contributory factor to the increased financial pressures on universities. Rather than encouraging students to automatically go to university (as some schools do), it may be better to encourage more students to take vocational training and avoid three years of academic study. If less went to university, it would mean the cost per student would be relatively lower.

Another issue is how do you charge students for going to university? If students leave university with large debts, this has negative consequences. But, if we finance university education through a graduate tax paid when graduates get a decent income then it may be less of a disincentive.

Abolition of Tuition Fees

In the 2017 and 2019 election, the Labour party proposed to abolition tuition fees. This is estimated to cost £16 billion.

  • How should university education be funded ?
  • Arguments for Free Education
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48 thoughts on “Should university education be free?”

In my perceptive the government must allow free education system for two category only. One is the children comes merited and secondly for lower class people

Aka free collage to welfare state

Dear Tejvan Pettinger,

You misspelled Subsidizing*

The E-Time Guy

Subsidizing is American-English spelling. But I use British-English ‘subsidising’

I don’t think you realised/realized that EconomicsHelp is a British-founded website.

Lmao! He must have felt well chuffed with himself…until you pointed that out!

Wouldn’t it be hard to manage that sort of, uh, selection?

Just give everyone a free college degree. No debts, no tax dollars to send Timmy off for free 4 years of living. Free college = tax payer pays to get more competition for his job. Free college = college degree is pointless cause everyone has one

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The best way is to offer relatively large number of places free of charge, for instance, 80% of overall demand in the economy to be free/state paid places.

The entrance competition must be held to get the place. The rest will be private places.

Erm..we just that read that…but I guess thanks for repeating it…

I agree that education improves how productive people are in the workforce. A friend of mine is majoring in computer science and they are much more adept because of what they are learning. If governments cannot offer compensation for education then I hope that companies will.

Education has positive benefits for the rest of society. If university education is left to market forces, there may be under-provision, and the economy may suffer from a lack of skilled graduates. Furthermore, in a free market, higher education would become the preserve of wealthy families who can afford to send their children to university. Therefore there is a strong case for the government providing higher education free at the point of use. However, others argue the positive externalities of higher education are limited, and the prime beneficiaries of a university degree are the graduates who can command a higher paying job. If the external benefits of many degrees are limited, government spending may be misallocation in offering relatively expensive university education. Rather than fund 3-4 year university degrees, governments may be able to get better return from spending money on primary education and vocational training – training which is more relevant to the needs of the economy.

plagiarized from another article but great response (next time cite)

Great post and interesting argument here. I have to say that with everything there is going to be advantages and disadvantages. If you offer free university education, it will devalue those who already have a university education. I think if there is a plan to offer free university education, then there needs to be guidelines around it – such as certain state schools, specific courses, etc.

Sorry, I’m not so sure I understand what you mean by “devalue” here. I think university is an opportunity and surely the value in an opportunity is in what you gain out of it, not its availability?

“devalue” as towards the degree itself, not the user. The more of anything (“degrees”) lowers the value, supply and demand. I’m a pretty lefty guy (51. Male, UK) but this one I’m not for, students seem to think degree courses were free before the fees were started under Tony Blair, they wernt, I applied and was refused due to my grade not being good enough. Only a set number of people were given grants. Now after working my way up the slippy pole, I would feel cheated if I have to pay extra tax for someone else to go to Uni. However it this was fully funded from a wealth tax (which I would not pay as I dont have much wealth), then yer go on do it.

I think the university fees should not be free. Maybe exceptions can be made for students from more poor backgrounds and they pay lesser fees but it should not be free because then there is no point. No one would take it seriously anymore & if u paid for something you value it more and work harder You should work hard for something you want and not expect everything to be handed on a silver plater

It’s not being handed on a silver plate – you still have to work to be accepted and work to graduate. Making uni free doesn’t devalue its certification.

I totally agree when you said that it would be hard for low-income parents to send their children to universities. This is the actual problem of my cousin which is why he is lucky that his dad is a military because there might be assistance for them. I will suggest this to them since they might not be aware, and he will be going to college in two years time.

all the Arguments against free university education written here are silly and nothing to do with how things work in real life, you can see it in all quality countries that have free tertiary education, like in northern europe. or in any other europe country, you can check it out.

I don’t get the argument about too many people going to university and getting a degree? Or am I the thick one here?

We’re not handing out free degrees, we’re giving everyone an equal OPPORTUNITY to get a degree, and a higher education for their future. So many people would’ve made very useful citizens had they have had a chance to fully develop their skills, and we forget that making uni free doesn’t make it any easier to get into and to graduate from.

Making uni free doesn’t devalue its certification btw

Very interesting, good job and thanks for sharing such a good blog.

Everyone grows up going to school and unless it is a private school, the government funds it once we enroll and all we need to do is show up. Once we graduate high school or get a GED, suddenly the price for a good quality education sky rockets and everyone starts scrambling to find a job, or get as many grants, scholarships, and loans as they possibly can to cover the ever growing debt most people will have once they graduate college. The debate on whether or not to make college free or at least more affordable has grown, and more and more people including politicians are looking for ways to make this happen. With every good idea there will be problems that are solved, but new ones will arise. Some reasons people want college level education to be free is it will give everyone a chance for education past high school, it avoids student debt, and it was free when they first made colleges, but the downfalls might include raised taxes, a sacrifice of standards, and financial irresponsibility from the students. Most of the people that attend college are from wealthier families because they are able to pay the bill. When colleges were first made, they were all actually free due to the lack of students and establishments under the Morrill Act of 1862 (Beelineweb.com et al.). This act allowed colleges to be created by the state on federal lands to make a higher education system available to all who desired it regardless of class or income. Now the sum that these schools require is absolutely outrageous. Even the wealthy are not able to afford quality education without taking out a loan. With all the loans, people are acquiring more and more debt, but without the cost of tuition, that debt would decrease dramatically (Pettinger). Many people that need loans currently, would be able to attend and get a quality education without worrying about the debt that will follow them for a long time. Along with that, more people that are not able to go to college now will be able to attend just because they want to instead of forgetting about college as even an option because it costs an arm and a leg (Ayres). Free college education would open many doors that have been shut due to financial struggles. With all the good that would come from free college level education, there are quite a bit of issues that might arise with it. Although free college-level education might seem great, there quite a few things that would be sacrificed with the elimination of tuition costs. With the sacrificed costs, some of the quality of education might be sacrificed as well (Ayres). Without the constant funds coming in from the enrolled students, the facilities might go a while without very necessary updates and repairs. There is always going to be a need for money to pay for all the things colleges provide and if students are not paying for it, the costs would shift from being a personal expense to a societal expense (Beelineweb.com et al.). The reality for everyone would be the increase of taxes to cover the necessary costs. Students would have their tuition covered by the government issued taxes. Without the need for loans, students might lose their financial responsibility because they will not have needed to manage their money to pay for their classes and take their education for granted (Amit Kumar). Some might actually devalue their diploma because they did not pay for the classes. The diploma would have the same value as a high school diploma. Although these things are factors that need to be considered, having education that is at least partially free would be good to allow more people to get the opportunity for getting a better education. Hopefully we will be able to find a way where we are able to go back to when colleges were first made, give everyone an equal opportunity for their education, and avoid debt, but also avoid some of the downfalls from taxes, sacrificed standards, and financial irresponsibility.

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Argumentative Essay: Free Education

The USA doesn’t have free education for students, at least at the higher levels. Much has been made about increasing levels of debt. Some people have even called for the introduction of free education. This would be a major mistake. It would decrease personal freedoms for much of the general population, reduce quality, and send the wrong message to students. This essay will explain why.

Firstly, someone has to pay for education. It’s physically impossible to deliver quality education while charging students nothing. Someone has to pay for it. If it isn’t students taking care of their responsibilities, it’s taxpayers who already pay for the substantial grants and scholarships awarded to students every year. It’s wrong to place this burden on the general population for a decision entirely resting on the individual’s shoulders.

Making education free would mean the money has to be found from elsewhere. The only options available to the government would be to raise taxes or cut services elsewhere. It’s no fairer to cut other vital services than it is to make students pay for education. It doesn’t solve the problem, it only shifts the problem onto another part of the population.

Increasing taxes to pay for education reduces personal freedoms. Economic freedom directly correlates with personal freedoms. By cutting disposable income through the raising of taxes, it reduces the options available for families across the country. Arguably, it’s selfish to do this because a minority group decides to go into higher education.

Some would argue making education free would open up colleges and universities to a greater number of students. This isn’t the case. Although education isn’t free now, this in no way means people are prohibited from entering higher education. Grants awarding achievement already exist for the best students. Furthermore, the vast majority of students can already receive student loans to pay for tuition and maintenance. There are no barriers to students entering higher education even without a free tuition system.

With the current student loan system, lenders are far more forgiving and the repayments are much lower than a conventional loan. The system already allows students to climb up the career ladder before they start to pay back significant amounts.

Cutting fees would also make it more difficult to continue to improve the standard of education within schools and colleges. If these institutions can’t make a profit from charging their students, they can only make enough to cover their maintenance costs. They can’t invest in themselves and boost standards. This would only lead to the continuing decline of American higher education facilities and make the country less attractive for international students.

Overall, it’s important to make students understand they have responsibilities and the onus rests on them to take care of these responsibilities. It’s wrong to place the burdens of others onto the general population. Cutting fees would bring benefits to students who don’t have to pay for their own education, but it would only lead to the general decline of the facilities they study at.

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IELTS Free University Education Essay

The issue of free university education is an essay topic that comes up in the IELTS test. This essay therefore provides you with some of the key arguments about this topic.

The essay is an agree / disagree essay , which means you are given one opinion and then asked if you agree with it or not.

So remember to make it clear in your essay which side you are on.

University education should be free to everyone, regardless of income.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Choosing a Side

Aims of University Essay

Of course you don't have to firmly come down on one side - you could partly agree if there are some aspects of the arguments you agree with but some parts you disagree with.

In this essay, the writer believes free university education is the best policy, so s/he agrees with the opinion. This is made clear in the conclusion (though you can put your opinion in the introduction as well if you wish).

The writer presents both sides of the argument . This is a good idea as you may find it more difficult to come up with a lot of ideas for one side of an argument. It also shows you are able to see both sides of the argument - a good academic skill.

Free University Education Essay

You should spend about 40 minutes on this task.

Write about the following topic:

Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own experience or knowledge.

Write at least 250 words.

Model Answer:

Over recent years, more and more people have been attending university and arguments have persisted as to whether students should pay for this privilege not. Although there are convincing arguments on both sides, I strongly believe that it should be free.

One argument put forward in favour of charging students is that education is becoming more expensive to fund as universities grow in size. Consequently, making students pay may maintain standards and ensure the quality of the teaching. In addition, it is argued that most students benefit from university in terms of higher paid jobs, so it is fair that they pay for at least some of the cost, especially given that the majority of students attending university are from the middle classes. Last but not least, in many countries, there is a shortage of people to do manual jobs such as plumbing and carpentry, so making university more expensive may encourage people to take up these jobs.

However, there are a number of arguments in favour of making university education free for all. Firstly, it will encourage more people to attend and this will benefit society. This is because it will lead to a more productive and educated workforce. Research has generally shown that those countries that have a better educated population via university have higher levels of innovation and productivity. In addition, there is the issue of equality of opportunity. If all students are required to pay, those on a low income may be dissuaded from attending, thus making it unfair. The reason for this is that they will likely not be able to secure financial support from their family so they will be concerned about the debts they will incur in the future.

In conclusion, I am of opinion that all education should remain equally available to all regardless of income. This is not only fair, but will also ensure that countries can prosper and develop into the future with a well-educated workforce.

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Education Should Be Free Essay in English

In most countries, education is a fundamental human right. And in some countries, it's considered so important that tuition is free for everyone, regardless of income or social status. Here are some sample essays on why education should be free.

100 Words Essay On Education Should Be Free

Quality education is important. In today's economy, it's more important than ever but the cost of a higher education can be prohibitive. That's why free education should be a priority for our country. It's an investment in our future, and it will pay dividends for decades to come.

A quality education is the key to unlocking opportunity and prosperity for all Indians. Everyone should have access to a quality education, regardless of their status or background. It is the one thing that can break the cycle of poverty, and it is the one thing that can give hope to the next generation.

Education Should Be Free Essay in English

200 Words Essay On Education Should Be Free

The benefits of free education are innumerable. Free education is a valuable investment in our future.

Benefits of Free Education

When education is free, more people have access to it. This means that more people can improve their lives by learning new skills and getting better jobs.

In addition, free education helps to level the playing field. It gives everyone an opportunity to improve their lives, regardless of their socioeconomic status. This is important because it helps to break the cycle of poverty and ensures that everyone has a chance to succeed. Furthermore, free education could also help bridge the gap between different socioeconomic levels and reduce inequality.

Free education bridges cultural divides: when people from all backgrounds can learn together in a safe and supported space, the result is often a greater sense of understanding and acceptance across demographics. Free education provides an opportunity to make real change on a broader scale, by improving people’s lives through financial and social stability.

By providing free education, we are creating a generation of knowledgeable and skilled workers who will help our economy thrive. By offering students the opportunity to continue their studies, society will gain a reliable, productive workforce that would benefit future generations.

500 Words Essay On Education Should Be Free

In today's society, education plays an even more important role in the development of our world. Unfortunately, not every student can support their education, as most of them do not have strong finances to get into their desired school and continue their future studies.

An effective free education policy might require changes to the way teachers are trained, which can be a major undertaking considering the current system in many countries is already overburdened. Finding ways to motivate and retain teachers in an environment where they won’t be as financially incentivized is also an important piece of this puzzle.

Social Benefits of Free Education

When it comes to the social benefits of free education, one of the most significant is the impact it can have on poverty. By ensuring that everyone has access to education, regardless of their socioeconomic status, this can open up opportunities for people who had previously been excluded from higher learning.

Students who receive free education are also able to break out of poverty by finding better jobs and earning higher salaries over time. This in turn helps promote economic growth, as well as create a more equal society.

Educational Equity Issues That Could Be Addressed by Free Education

The primary benefit of free education is that it would make higher learning more accessible to lower-income individuals and families who may not be able to afford college tuition. This would open up opportunities that may not have been available previously, helping those who are most in need gain access to a quality education.

It would also ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to pursue their academic dreams without worrying about finances. Free education would create a level playing field for everyone, regardless of their financial background, giving them an equal chance for success.

The Impact of Universal Education

Universal education would have a positive impact not only at the micro level but also on a macro level. Countries with higher rates of education can experience increased economic growth and improved labour productivity.

If everyone was afforded a quality education for free, the world would be in a better place. People would be better equipped to make sound financial decisions, drive innovation, and participate in civic life.

Finally, if all people had access to quality educational resources regardless of their socio-economic status or background, there could be an increase in social cohesion as well as an improved sense of belonging within society. This could lead to increased communication between different classes of people and help bridge the gap between us all.

Challenges to Achieving Free Education

In most countries, the majority of funding comes from taxpayers. When talking about free education, one of the biggest challenges is finding ways to pay for it.

Another challenge is providing access to quality education. Even if tuition fees are eliminated, there are still costs associated with materials, resources and other learning aids that can put many people at a disadvantage. That’s why it’s important to make sure that any policy aimed at providing free education takes into account the resources necessary for students to get the best out of their studies.

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Economic Times

  • Arts & Humanities

Higher Education Should Be Free: Pros and Cons

15 Jan 2023

  • Arts & Humanities

Format: MLA

Academic level: College

Paper type: Essay (Any Type)

Words: 2161

Downloads: 1

The United States is divided, in facts and opinions, over the financing of higher education. The view of most governments, not just in the United States but also in the world at large, is that educational platforms should be free of charge. If it does not apply for all spheres of learning, then at least for the basic schooling levels that end with high school education. Accordingly, these efforts have been supported by the United Nations and other international agencies, with the government enacting policies that aim at creating a change towards this social and political objective. Yet, despite the national and foreign influences that push for free education, the essence of free education is not yet fully defined. It is becoming more difficult to draw the line between affordable education and free education, and to a larger extent, the proponents of free education could sometimes be inadvertently making the mistake of substituting affordable education for free education. This confusion raises the question of how free is free education. And, if and when the system is fully realized, questions remain unanswered over the economic toll of cutting off the financial flow through the education system. The promise of free education may be perceived by some as a misguided move by the government, but in reality, it is the key to success to all students wishing to further their dreams. 

For a proponent of free education, a starting point would be the rationale behind the creation of the Morrill act of 1862- a statute that enabled the creation of a land-grant college on federal so that Americans of all social classes could access education. The objective of this rule was to ensure that the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes were made available for the pursuit of professional life. Going back to the 1800s, the cost of attending schools was nearly zero, and people would be attending schools without a penny on it. However, the time has moved so fast that the cost of attending public schools has increased three-fold in less than two centuries. For instance, in the year 2012-2013, Pell Grant only catered for 30 percent of the average cost of higher learning through the four years of higher learning. This figure is compared with the 75 percent coverage of the same in 1973, reveals a significant reduction in the efforts to aid the students in their academic endeavors. The cost has risen exponentially over the last years, so much that some students are not able to pay for it. The consequence is that students from low economy families miss out on the chance to receive the best education because they cannot pay, or if they do, their midget pays can only afford them low-ranking education institutions. 

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These proposals on free education are therefore made on the grounds that a majority of the younger generation in the United States is struggling. Many cannot make it past high school because they will not afford higher education tuition fees. Some students also opt not to further their academic ambitions for fear of burdening their families. Take, for instance, a family where the breadwinner is also battling lifetime conditions such as diabetes and cancer. Out of the human instances, it would only be reasonable that the young adults freshly graduated from high school opts to downplay the need for education due to the financial and emotional demands of the immediate and pressing health conditions. Health status aside, there are young people under the care of their guardians and who would easily further their education, but for fear of being burdensome on someone who is not their real parents is enough to quench their academic thirst. The list of the factors that weigh out a student’s chance of transitioning from high school to college learning is long and diverse. But, to a greater extent, most of the factors can be attributed directly to the higher costs of tuition fees. 

The current efforts to motivate student entry into higher learning institutions through student loans may be making change. But, as per the opinions of the graduates, the loans are an additional burden to a society already drowning on depression and other social constraints. This is particularly true considering that a majority of the students passing through higher learning institutions do so with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, which turns out to be yet another shackle before the debtors ( VOA Learning English, 2017) . This situation limits their active participation in the financial markets and enslaves them to the creditors for decades before they could realize the best out of their careers. Further, the issues of higher learning credits assume that society plays out fairly and that everyone is entitled to a well-paying job after graduation. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, at least not for everyone. Part of the graduating population fail to secure a job years after graduation, and if they get, it may never be enough to sustain basic requirements as well as offset the tremendous high school debt hanging on their shoulders ( VOA Learning English, 2017) . In one way, the pressure to meet the demands of education may be subjecting the younger population to adverse conditions of depression and the associated health risks. In the long run, the high learning expenses cause more damage to society than just the issue of deferred dreams. 

What then would happen when and if education is made free? Evidently, a larger number of lower-income students will have the opportunity to proceed to graduation when there are no tuition fees. All the students who drop out because they cannot afford the tuition fees for all the four years will have their biggest obstacle eliminated. It would improve the current college graduation rates, as very few students would be opting for part-time status, break from education, or total dropout for financial reasons. With more people graduating, the United States will be having a society that is equipped with better critical thinking skills, and ultimately, an innovative workforce ( VOA Learning English, 2017) . Also, the younger generations will not be crushed by the burden of student debts. Today, American students clearing from higher studies with loans lower than $ 10,000 is considered lucky. The average loan for those who are graduating stands at about $37,000 ( Page, M., & Clawson, 2019) . This situation contrasts sharply with the students from other countries where there is free higher education, including Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Finland, and Denmark. Students from these countries are not faced with the burden of high tuition fees and have time to pull their future plans together immediately after school. Considering that most of their loans are from smaller living expenses such as food and luxury, they have higher chances to change their financial oppositions in a short time ( Page & Clawson, 2019) . They quickly buy houses rather than rent an apartment. They also have higher chances of starting off a business and contribute more to the economy. The same situation can be witnessed in the United States if the students are freed from high tuition expenses 

With free higher learning, students are better positioned to select a major that suits their passion and grades. Sometimes the parent influence the students to pick majors that would not bring financial constraints during the college period. The fear of shelling out thousands upon thousands of money in school fees is a major factor that forces students to pick causes that don’t necessarily pique their interest and enjoyment. This mismatch goes a long way to stir poor performance due to burnouts and disinterest. The whole college life may end up being a waste, all in the name of the tuition expenses. 

As a matter of fact, there is a group in society who do not feel the weight of higher education due to their financial position. Students from wealthy families are privileged and could attend the schools of their choice, and with resources of their choice. But, as biology confirms, not all students have the same intellectual capabilities, and the rich children may not always be the brightest, the most creative, or the most innovative. Yet, with the education costs inherently high, it is these children who are exposed to education, and society is inadvertently locking out some of its most resourceful minds by not giving them a chance to study ( Jessica, 2018) . What is important is to come up with a system where the best and brightest have access to the university- not just the wealthiest. Not only does the nation need an educated workforce, but it also needs more educated citizens. It is notable that a person with sufficient education reports a higher degree of health and happiness ( Jessica, 2018) . Reports indicate that societies with higher education attainments register lower crime rates and have higher rates of success of social welfare. 

To the opponent, the gaps in educational accomplishments are not defined entirely on the higher costs. Not even the debts contribute significantly to a graduate’s financial performance after leaving a higher learning institution. Looking at the situation from a demand and supply point of view reveals the credibility of this opposing claim. In the simple economies of supply and demand, price is used as a regulating factor in the flow of products. For instance, when there is too much wheat in the market, raising the price of the wheat or reducing the supply of the wheat can be used to control the purchase of wheat. However, supply and demand in the higher education framework are not similar to the market for other inventory. Economists argue that one of the most significant differences between the higher learning market and the normal inventory market is that the cost of education does not define the access to educational services. Accordingly, the one selling wheat does not care about the quality of the person who ends up making the purchase, but the same cannot be said on the university or college seeking to admit a student. The higher learning institutions are greatly concerned with the quality of students they would want to have in their institutions. Primarily, these institutions wish to create stimulating environments for success and are more inclined towards giving opportunities to the best and the brighter students than the wealthiest of them all. Just because a student’s family is capable of paying all the school fees does not guarantee direct energy into their institution of choice. There have been instances where the higher institution markets have turned away many financially capable students through the admission procedures. Taking price as a deterrent to the access of higher education is not a piece of fully conclusive evidence because the price is only charged to the admitted students, not all the students willing to be admitted. In this case, anyone blaming the entry process should be directing the blame on the merits of entry but not the cost of admission. 

Again, the community college programs reflect what would become of the education system should the government make the entire hire learning system free of any charges. The cheaper the service offered, the higher the likelihood of it being ignored or undervalued. This correlation would explain the poor academic track records witnessed at the community colleges. The attendees of the community colleges do not pay for their tuition fees, implying that they are preferred options for the segment of the young population who are unable to raise the regular college tuition fees. And instead of providing the best results, the community colleges provide some of the poorest academic records as compared to the conventional billed higher learning institutions. Such a trend should be taken as a warning against risking huge public finances to finance public institutions while cultivating reduced motivation for success in the process. To add on, the 2017 National Student Clearinghouse statistics show that only 27% of the students in community colleges graduate, far less than the 47% who drop out ( Vedder, 2018) . It indicates that the more free an education system becomes, the lower the motivation to complete it. This speculation hints at free education, ruining the already scandalous high dropout rates in education. 

Lastly, while the motivation behind the push for free higher learning education is centered on creating an equal platform between the rich and the poor, it may worsen the already existing gap of privilege between the two social divides ( Bruenig, 2015) . Students in the United States receive benefits in form tuition subsidies, living grants, and public loans. The fairness in the access to these types of government aides risks getting disrupted upon the rolling out a fully free education program. This is because there would be no effort to overhaul the effect of these student benefits to wealthy students. Some students come from well-off blackguards, and this means that they are already disproportionality enjoying well-off futures. Given the class-based differences, making the education system completely free would be an indirect way of giving out more money to students from a richer family than for the poor ones because paying for the school fees was not a challenge in the first place. 

To this end, it is evident that at least three debatable scenarios emerge: one, the affordability of education is variable depending on a person's socioeconomic capabilities. Two, the student debt crisis is on the center stage of the push for free education. Three, shifting from a privately funded education system to a full government sponsor system would take its toll on the overall performance of the economy. 

Summing up, therefore, it is worth noting that education is a necessity, not a luxury. High school education was identified as necessity years back and was immediately made free because no single individual should be locked out of necessity. The same applies to a college education today. If college is central for career-building just as high school education was once deemed, then it should be made free. As all would agree, a college education is a pathway to a more stable life guided by critical thinking skills. Of importance is to make it available for both the poor and the rich. It should be financed by public money and be treated as a right to all the young generation. 


Bruenig, M. (2015, October 5).  The case against free college . Dissent Magazine.  https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/matt-bruenig-left-case-against-free-college 

Jessica. (2018, February 16).  Education should be free for everyone . Youth Voices.  https://www.youthvoices.live/2018/02/13/education-should-be-free-for-everyone/ 

Page, M., & Clawson, D. (2019).  It's time to push for free college . NEA.  https://www.nea.org/home/62740.htm 

Vedder, R. (2018, April 12).  The case against free college tuition . Forbes.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardvedder/2018/04/12/the-free-tuition-craze-now-new-jersey/#162adfd91b2a 

VOA Learning English. (2017, February 18).  How free is 'Free college?' . VOA.  https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/the-cost-of-free-tuition/3727969.html 

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