Should college education be free?

Due to the Coronavirus, college education has ceased in some places and gone exclusively online in others. From a dollars and cents perspective, why pay full price for something when you are not getting the full value? Students are demanding refunds or at the least, partial repayments. Colleges are refusing, citing ongoing expenses as the reason why. This brings to mind a recurring debate;  should college education be tuition free? I debate it. | Courtesy of Proactive Talent (


Hi, I’m Jim Stroud and this is my podcast.

The Coronavirus has made the world stand still, if only for a little while. But life must go on and when it does, what will it look like? I’ve been wondering that myself lately as I try to view the world of my daughter who’s enrolled in college. She, like so many other college students, are in a bit of a quandry. College education has ceased in some places and gone exclusively online in others. From a dollars and cents perspective, why pay full price for something when you are not getting the full value? If you are the parent of a college student, no doubt you know what I mean. And as all this is happening, an old debate comes to mind, should college education be free? Some people say that free education is the future of college education. I’m going to share both sides of that argument after this message from my sponsor.

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There is a ranging debate going on right now over big tuition refunds. Students want their money back or at least, some of it. On the other side, colleges say that the transition to online classes has not changed their regular expenses. The website Quartz wrote a long article about it and here are some quotes reflecting both arguments. First, the student viewpoint…

The coronavirus pandemic has sent students at residential colleges careening back to their families’ homes. And they want their money back.

“Zoom university is not worth 50k a year,” one New York University student declared in a petition for a partial tuition refund that has so far accumulated more than 11,600 signatures.

The NYU appeal is just one among a wave of petitions and lawsuits demanding partial refunds for the spring semester, as students argue that the costs of their education don’t reflect the switch to online classes. Meanwhile, students and parents looking ahead to the possibility that online learning will continue into the fall semester are wondering whether they’ll get their money’s worth from tuition—a question that’s gained urgency as record US unemployment levels force families to reevaluate their spending.

It’s perfectly logical that students are up in arms about tuition. In the US, the average sticker price at a private college is $36,801 per year, while in-state rates for public universities average $10,116 a year. These amounts are meant to reflect the value of what’s being taught, but also students’ ability to experience in-person interactions with their professors and peers, not to mention things like evening programming and extracurricular activities. And research suggests that students tend to learn less from online classes than they do in face-to-face courses.

And now, let’s hear the issue from the vantage point of college institutions.

“When we had to shift to online education, that shift saved us not one penny in salary costs,” says David Feldman, a professor of economics at The College of William & Mary and co-author of the 2010 book Why Does College Cost So Much?

Faculty salaries and benefits account for nearly a third of expenses at US research schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Amid the pandemic, professors are still teaching the same courses, and their workloads have actually gone up as they’ve rushed to convert their classes to new online formats. Administrative and other non-teaching staff, who make up more than half of college and university employees, are still working too, with many mental-health counselors, admissions officers, and the like shifting their jobs to an online format.

Meanwhile, Feldman says, colleges are spending more money to invest in technology that will allow students and faculty to meet online, and IT workers are putting in overtime to help faculty navigate online-learning tools.

As for the dorms, classrooms, gyms, and other facilities sitting empty, colleges still have to maintain the buildings and their campuses in order to have them ready for students when they do eventually open their doors again.

When I read that article, it reminded me of the free college debate. I heard it several times over the years, most recently from Bernie Sanders when he was running for President.   I’ve heard students argue for it as well but, when I do, their arguments were far from convincing. The leader of the million student march Keely Mullen debated the issue with Fox personality Keely Mullen back in 2012 and this was part of the exchange.  As I said, not very convincing.

I can see the issue from both sides and will lay out arguments for free education and arguments against free education, after this.


I wish I could take credit for the extensive research behind these arguments, but truth be told, I discovered them on the website I will now repeat some of what I read there, arguments pro and con to free college tuition and end it with what I think.  First, the PRO arguments…

PRO-ARGUMENT #1: Tuition-free college will help decrease crippling student debt. If tuition is free, students will take on significantly fewer student loans. Student loan debt in the United States exceeds $1.5 trillion. 44.2 million Americans have student loan debt, and 10.7% of those borrowers are in default. [1][2] The average 2016 graduate owed $37,172 in college loans. [2] Student loan debt has risen 130% since 2008, and public college costs have risen 213% between 1987 and 2017. [1][4] Students are coming out of college already buried under a mountain of debt before they have a chance to start their careers. [5]

PRO-ARGUMENT #2: The US economy and society has benefited from tuition-free college in the past. Nearly half of all college students in 1947 were military veterans, thanks to President Roosevelt signing the GI Bill in 1944 to ensure military servicemembers, veterans, and their dependents could attend college tuition-free. The GI Bill allowed 2.2 million veterans to earn a college education, and another 5.6 million to receive vocational training, all of which helped expand the middle class. [7][8][9] An estimated 40% of those veterans would not have been able to attend college otherwise. GI Bill recipients generated an extra $35.6 billion over 35 years and an extra $12.8 billion in tax revenue, resulting in a return of $6.90 for every dollar spent. [10]

PRO-ARGUMENT #3: Everyone deserves the opportunity to get a college education.
 Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, stated, “A dramatic increase in the number of Americans with college credentials is absolutely essential for our economic, social and cultural development as a country.” [15] The rapid rise of tuition has limited access to higher education, which is essential in today’s workforce: three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations now call for education beyond high school, according to the US Department of Education. [29] College graduates earn $570,000 more than a high school graduate over a lifetime, on average, and they have lower unemployment rates. [16] [17] Students from low- and moderate-income families are unable to afford as many as 95% of American colleges. [30]

And now, arguments against free college education

CON-ARGUMENT #1: Tuition-free college is not free college and students will still have large debts. Tuition is only one expense college students have to pay and accounts for 39.5% of total average college costs. [22] On average, in-state tuition at a public college costs $10,230 for each year. Fees, room, and board for on-campus housing are another $11,140. [23] Books and supplies are another $1,240, transportation adds $1,160, and other expenses cost another $2,120. Without tuition, college still costs an average of $15,660 per year. [22]

CON-ARGUMENT #2: Taxpayers would spend billions to subsidize tuition, while other college costs remained high. The estimated cost of Bernie Sanders’ free college program is $47 billion per year, and has states paying 33% of the cost, or $15.5 billion. [25] According to David H. Feldman, PhD, and Robert B. Archibald, PhD, both Professors of Economics at William & Mary College, “This will require tax increases, or it will force states to move existing resources into higher education and away from other state priorities like health care, prisons, roads and K-12 education.” [26]

CON-ARGUMENT #3: Tuition-free college will decrease completion rates, leaving students without the benefits of a full college education and degree. Jack A. Chambless, Economics Professor at Valencia College, said that with a free college program, “Potentially millions of young people who have no business attending college would waste their time — and taxpayer dollars — seeking degrees they will not obtain… Free tuition would dupe young people into a sense of belonging, only to find that their work ethic, intelligence and aptitude are not up to the rigors of advanced education.” [34]

Regarding that last argument… wow!  But, what do I think? Should college be free? Honestly, I think that’s the wrong question. I think the debate should be not if college should be free but, do we really need college to succeed? For so long, we have repeated the mantra that all students MUST go to college and without it, their chances at financial success decreases exponentially. I don’t think that’s true. From what I have seen, many people are being educated for work that will soon be done by machines. So, they will eventually graduate with HUGE student loan debt and be unable to find a job. I think it is high time, past time, that we as a society should promote trade education and apprenticeships. And I am happy to say, I am not the only one who thinks that way.

Listen to this clip from Andrew Yang as he discussed this issue of education with Joe Rogan.  Well said, gentlemen. Well, said.


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