19+ Reasons College Should be Free (Pros and Cons)

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Practical Psychology

Imagine owing more money than you can even think of, right after you finish school. Sounds like a nightmare, doesn't it?

Well, for millions of people, this isn't just a bad dream—it's reality. In the United States, the total student loan debt has reached a mind-blowing $1.7 trillion! That's trillion, with a 'T'.

It's like buying about 340,000 really fancy houses or going on a lifetime supply of vacations but instead, it's money owed by students.

College is free in some places in the world, and even in some U.S. States. But most college costs tens or hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. 3 main reasons supporters think college should be free are: the rising cost of tuition, increasing equality, and the social benefits from a more educated populace.

Should college be free? You might think, "Sure, who doesn't like free stuff?" But it's not as simple as that. The price and experience of college is a social construct that can be really hard to change.

We'll explore how college got so expensive in the first place, what people are saying about making it free, and examples from places that have already tried it.

The Rising Cost of College Tuition

old college building

Once Upon a Time: A Glimpse of the Past

Believe it or not, attending college was once a much more affordable dream for many Americans. If we set our time-travel dials to the 1970s, the average annual tuition cost at a four-year public university was approximately $358—yes, you read that right!

When we adjust for inflation, that would be around $2,200 today. Now contrast this with the modern price tag: according to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of tuition as of 2023 was $9,678 for in-state students and a whopping $27,091 for out-of-state students at public universities. For private universities, the annual average shot up to around $38,768.

Rocketing to New Heights: What's Driving the Cost?

The burning question is, why have these numbers skyrocketed? Multiple factors come into play.

First and foremost, colleges and universities have expanded their amenities and facilities. Students these days are often welcomed with state-of-the-art gyms, luxe dorms, and even gourmet dining options. While these add-ons certainly make college life more appealing, they also hike up the overall cost.

Another culprit is the administrative bloat. The number of non-teaching staff at many institutions has grown significantly. From 1975 to 2005, the number of administrators and managerial employees in higher education institutions more than doubled, according to the Department of Education. Their salaries, benefits, and offices add another layer of expense that is often passed on to students.

State funding—or rather, the lack of it—also shares the blame. For decades, state governments have been reducing their contributions to public higher education. A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that between 2008 and 2018, state funding for two- and four-year colleges was slashed by nearly $7 billion after adjusting for inflation.

The Heavy Price of Loans: A Debt-Fueled Future

The rising costs inevitably lead students and families to the daunting world of student loans. It doesn't matter if you are a trained skillsperson or a white-collar businessman, college is expensive and loans don't pay themselves.

As of 2023, about 45.3 million Americans are shackled with student loan debt, which has crossed the staggering $1.77 trillion mark.

To give you a clearer picture: the average borrower from the Class of 2021 graduated with approximately $29,100 in student loan debt. And 54% of the 2021 Class held this debt.

But what does this debt mean in real-life terms? Imagine you're a 22-year-old fresh out of college with that average debt. Even if you manage to land a job right away, a good chunk of your paycheck will go to loan payments for years to come. For some, this means delaying major life milestones like buying a house, getting married, or starting a family.

So, clearly, something needs to be done. Let's get into the specific reasons some people believe college should be free. Later, we'll talk about the various debates around free college tuition.

Economic Reasons for Free College

  • Increased Access to Higher Education: Making college free would mean more people could go to college without the fear of financial burden, increasing accessibility for low and middle-income families.
  • Higher Earning Potential: College graduates, on average, earn more than those with just a high school diploma. This means they contribute more in taxes over their lifetimes.
  • Reduced Student Loan Debt: A large portion of the U.S. population is struggling with student loan debt, which has economic repercussions like delaying the ability to buy a home or start a family.
  • Boosts Economy: A better-educated workforce can contribute more effectively to the economy, leading to faster growth and increased innovation.
  • Less Reliance on Social Programs: People with higher education are less likely to rely on social programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits, saving the government money in the long run.
  • Global Competitiveness: To compete globally, a country needs a well-educated workforce. Free college could be a step toward that goal.
  • Reduced Unemployment: Higher education often leads to higher employability and can help in reducing overall unemployment rates.

Social Reasons for Free College

  • Social Mobility: Access to higher education is key for upward social mobility. Free college can level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Increased Civic Engagement: Studies have shown that college graduates are more likely to vote, volunteer, and engage in civic activities.
  • Equality: Making college free can help close the racial, gender, and socio-economic gaps in higher education attendance and graduation rates.
  • Better Health: Higher education is correlated with better health outcomes, including longer life expectancy and better mental health.
  • Diversity: Free college can lead to a more diverse workforce, as more people from various backgrounds have the opportunity to attend college and enter fields they might otherwise not have considered.
  • Educational Freedom: Students might feel freer to pursue degrees in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, instead of opting for degrees that they perceive will "pay off" more quickly to cover their student loan debts.

Moral and Philosophical Reasons for Free College

  • Right to Education: Some argue that, like K-12 education, higher education is a right and should be available to all, irrespective of income.
  • Public Good: Education is often cited as a public good that benefits society as a whole, not just the individual receiving the education.
  • Human Capital: In the knowledge economy, human capital is one of the most valuable resources. Free college can be seen as an investment in a country's human capital.

Practical Reasons for Free College

  • Simplification of Financial Aid: A free college system could potentially simplify the complicated financial aid system, making it easier for students to apply and receive support.
  • Teacher Recruitment: If college is free, the teaching profession might attract more qualified candidates who are currently deterred by the prospect of low salaries combined with high student debt.
  • Encourages Lifelong Learning: Without the barrier of cost, adults and older citizens might be more inclined to return to school to upskill or change careers, fostering a culture of lifelong learning.

Debates Around Free College

stack of books with an apple

The idea of making college free has sparked passionate arguments, both for and against. On the one hand, proponents argue that free college can transform society, making it more equitable and prosperous. Detractors, however, counter that it's not as simple or as financially viable as it sounds.

The Pros: Where Supporters Stand

Equality and Access: Advocates often point out that free college would make higher education accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial background. Data from the Pell Institute shows that in 2016, only 11% of low-income students graduated with a bachelor's degree within six years, compared to 58% of their higher-income peers.

Economic Upliftment: Free college could be an investment in human capital, leading to a more skilled workforce. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, 65% of all jobs in the American economy will require education beyond high school by 2027.

Reducing the Debt Burden: With student loan debt surpassing $1.77 trillion, supporters argue that free college could alleviate this massive financial strain affecting millions of Americans.

The Cons: Where Critics Stand

Cost to Taxpayers: One of the most common arguments against free college is the cost. Critics point out that somebody has to pay for it, and that "somebody" is often the taxpayer. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, free public college would cost around $79 billion a year.

Quality Concerns: Some worry that making college free could lead to overcrowded classes and reduced educational quality. Already, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only about 60% of college students complete their bachelor's degrees within six years.

Fairness Question: Critics argue that free college could be seen as a subsidy for wealthier families who can already afford tuition, thereby increasing income inequality rather than reducing it.

The Middle Ground: Compromise Solutions

Some experts propose middle-ground solutions like income-based repayment plans or free community college as a stepping stone.

For instance, Tennessee's free community college program, Tennessee Promise, has seen considerable success since its inception in 2014. The program has increased college enrollment among high school graduates by 4.6%.

International Examples: What Can We Learn?

Several countries like Germany, Norway, and Finland offer free higher education and have seen positive societal impacts.

In Germany, where tuition is free for undergraduate students, the percentage of young people who attend university is higher than the U.S. However, critics note that these countries often have higher tax rates to fund such programs.

Public Opinion: What Do People Think?

Interestingly, public opinion is shifting in favor of free college. A 2023 poll from The Campaign for Free College Tuition showed that 70-81% of voters in the U.S. support making public colleges and universities tuition-free. The numbers are even higher among younger demographics, suggesting that the idea is gaining traction.

Economic Benefits of Free College

More Money in Your Pocket: Higher Wages

Let's start with something everyone can understand: money. If you graduate from college, you're likely to earn more money than someone who didn't.

In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor's degree were about $1,334, while someone with just a high school diploma earned around $899. That's a big difference! Over a lifetime, college graduates could earn up to $1 million more than those who only finished high school.

Bye-Bye, Student Loans!

Imagine not having to worry about paying back a big student loan every month. Wouldn't that be great?

According to data, around 45 million Americans owe a massive $1.7 trillion in student loans. That's trillion with a "T"! These loans can stick around for years, making it hard for people to buy homes, start families, or even just enjoy life without a mountain of debt hanging over them. Free college would mean that students wouldn't start their adult lives deep in the hole.

A Bigger, Better Economy

When people earn more, they also spend more. And when they spend more, the whole economy gets a boost.

The more you earn, the more you pay in taxes, which means more money for public projects and services like roads, schools, and hospitals. Remember that study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce says that by 2027, about 65% of all jobs will require some form of higher education? That means we need a workforce that's ready for those jobs.

Less Stress on Social Services

People with college degrees are less likely to need things like unemployment benefits or food stamps.

Only about 2% of people with a bachelor's degree rely on food stamps, compared to 12% of those with only a high school diploma. By making college free, we're actually saving money in the long run because fewer people would need to use these kinds of social services.

Businesses Love It, Too!

You might be surprised to hear this, but a lot of businesses actually like the idea of free college. Why? Because they want workers who are skilled and educated.

Companies often spend a lot of money on training new employees. If more people had access to college, businesses could save on these costs and get employees who are ready to hit the ground running.

A Snowball Effect: More Benefits Down the Road

Making college free could have a snowball effect. That means one good thing leads to another, and another.

For example, if more people can go to college, that could lead to more entrepreneurs starting new businesses. Those new businesses would create more jobs. And guess what? More jobs mean a stronger economy!

Investing in Our Future

In the end, free college isn't just a nice idea; it's a smart investment in our country's future. It's like planting a seed. You water it, take care of it, and watch it grow. Over time, that small seed turns into a tree that provides shade, fruit, and even cleaner air.

Just like that tree, the benefits of free college could grow and touch many parts of our lives, making the country a better place for everyone.

Social Benefits of Free College

More Than Just Money: The Bigger Picture

When we talk about free college, it's easy to focus on dollars and cents. But what about the stuff that's harder to put a price tag on? We're talking about the good things that can happen in our communities and society if more people could go to college without worrying about the cost. Let's dive in!

Leveling the Playing Field: Greater Equality

First up is equality. Right now, your chances of going to college often depend on how much money your family has. That's not fair, is it? Free college could be a game-changer. It would give everybody a fair shot at getting a higher education, no matter where they come from.

Breaking the Chain: Ending the Cycle of Poverty

Education is like a key that can unlock a better future. For many people, it's a way out of poverty. When you're educated, you're more likely to get a good job, which means you're less likely to struggle with money. And guess what? That goodness doesn't stop with you. When you do better, your kids are more likely to do better, too. It's a cycle, but a good one!

A Smarter Society: Better Decision-Making

When people are educated, they make better decisions. That includes everything from picking the right foods to eat to understanding complex issues like climate change or social justice. An educated public is better at making choices that benefit everyone. This is crucial, especially when it comes to voting for our leaders.

Healthier Lives: A Boost for Public Health

Did you know that people with higher levels of education tend to live healthier lives? Yep, it's true! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with a bachelor's degree or higher are less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise compared to those with less education. If more people could go to college, we could end up with a healthier nation.

Strengthening Communities: More Civic Engagement

Here's another cool benefit: educated people are more likely to be involved in their communities. They're more likely to volunteer, attend public meetings, and even join local organizations. A study by the College Board Research found that 40% of adults with a bachelor's degree volunteered, compared to only 19% of high school graduates.

Happier Lives: Boosting Mental Health

Last but not least, let's talk about happiness. Education can lead to better mental health. When people have good jobs and stable lives, they're less likely to suffer from stress and anxiety. And who doesn't want to be happier?

A Society We All Want to Live In

Free college can do more than just help individuals; it can help all of us. From making society more equal and smarter to improving public health and even boosting our spirits, the social benefits of free college could make our country a better place to live for everyone.

Examples of Places Where College is Free or Subsidized

world map

First off, let's get something straight: free or very affordable college isn't just a pie-in-the-sky dream. It's real, and it's happening in different parts of the world. Some places even have it right here in the United States! Let's take a closer look at these examples to see what we can learn.

A Taste of Tennessee: Free Community College

Let's start close to home with Tennessee. Yup, you heard right! In Tennessee, they have a program called the Tennessee Promise. High school graduates can go to community college for two years without paying a cent in tuition.

Guess what? Since this program started in 2014, college enrollment shot up by 4.6%, according to a study in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

New York's Excelsior Program

New York State offers the Excelsior Scholarship, a program that makes public colleges tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 a year. However, there's a catch: after graduating, students must live and work in New York for the same number of years they received the scholarship. If not, the scholarship turns into a loan.

Across the Pond: Germany's Example

Let's hop over the ocean to Germany, where tuition for undergraduate students is free at public universities. That even goes for international students! And it's not like these are second-rate schools. Some German universities are ranked among the top in the world.

The Nordic Model: Sweden, Norway, and Finland

Heading north, countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland also offer free higher education. Students only pay a small administrative fee each semester, which is usually less than $100. These countries believe that everyone has the right to education, regardless of their bank balance.

The South American Surprise: Argentina and Brazil

Now, let's fly across the globe to South America. Countries like Argentina and Brazil offer free or very low-cost higher education. In Brazil, the best universities are actually the public ones, and they're free! However, it's super competitive to get in.

The Catch: Higher Taxes and Competitive Entry

Now, it's important to note that free college often comes with its own set of challenges. For example, countries that offer free tuition usually have higher taxes. Plus, getting into these colleges can be super tough because so many people want to go.

Lessons We Can Learn

So, what can we take away from all this? First, free or low-cost college is totally doable. Second, each place has its own way of making it work, whether it's through higher taxes, tough entrance exams, or special rules like staying in the state after graduation.

A World of Possibilities

As you can see, the idea of free or subsidized college isn't just a pipe dream; it's a reality in many places. These examples show that there are different paths to the same goal: making higher education accessible to everyone.

How Can College Education be Free?

We've talked a lot about why free college is a good idea. But now comes the million-dollar question: How do we actually make it happen? Don't worry; people have been thinking hard about this, and there are some pretty cool ideas out there.

Tax the Super Rich: A Popular Suggestion

One idea that's getting a lot of attention is taxing the super-rich. That means the government would take a little extra money from people who have a whole lot of it and use that to pay for free college.

For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed a 2% annual tax on households with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion. According to estimates, this could raise around $2.75 trillion over 10 years. That's more than enough to make public colleges free and even help with other things like healthcare!

Closing Tax Loopholes: Every Penny Counts

You might not know this, but there are all sorts of ways people and companies can avoid paying taxes. These are called "tax loopholes," and they can add up to a lot of money. Closing these loopholes could free up extra funds that could be used for education.

Cutting Wasteful Spending: Trim the Fat

Another idea is to look at where the government is already spending money and see if any of it could be better used for education. Maybe there are programs that aren't really working or areas where the government is spending more than it needs to. By "trimming the fat," we could find the money for free college without raising taxes.

Partnerships with Private Companies

What if businesses chipped in to help make college free? Some companies already offer scholarships or have programs to help their employees go back to school. Expanding these partnerships could be a win-win: companies get educated workers, and students get to go to college for free or at a lower cost.

State and Federal Programs

Making college free doesn't have to be something that only the federal government does. States can get in on the action too! In fact, some states like Tennessee and New York have already started their own programs. The federal government could help by matching the money states put in, making it easier for them to offer free or reduced tuition.

Sliding Scale Tuition: Pay What You Can

Here's another idea: what if the cost of college was based on how much your family can afford? Some colleges are already doing this. They look at your family's income and then decide how much you should pay. That way, people who can afford to pay more do, and those who can't, pay less or nothing at all.

Multiple Roads to the Same Destination

As you can see, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to making college free. But that's a good thing! It means we have lots of options to explore. The most important thing is to get started. After all, the best way to make free college a reality is to take the first step, no matter how small.


Whew! We've covered a lot of ground, haven't we? From the rising cost of college tuition to the debates and benefits, all the way to real-life examples and ways to make it happen—free college is a big topic! But when you connect all the dots, one thing becomes super clear: the time for free college is now.

Imagine a world where everybody has an equal shot at higher education. A world where your future isn't decided by the size of your bank account, but by your hard work, talent, and dreams. Sounds pretty great, right? And guess what? It's totally possible. Countries around the world are already doing it, and some places in the United States are giving it a shot, too.

And let's not forget the ripple effect of free college. It's not just good for students; it's good for everyone! From boosting the economy and leveling the social playing field to creating a smarter, healthier, and happier society—free college could be the key to solving a lot of our problems.

Of course, making college free won't be easy. There are challenges to face and questions to answer. How will we pay for it? How will it affect the quality of education? These are important questions, and we'll need smart, creative solutions to answer them. But the good news is, we've got options, lots of them!

Like any big journey, the road to free college starts with a single step. Maybe that step is talking to your friends and family about why it's a good idea. Or maybe it's writing to your local politicians to tell them why it's important. Whatever that first step is for you, now's the time to take it.

The idea of free college has been around for a while, but it's never been more important than it is today. With the cost of tuition soaring and the benefits clearer than ever, there's no reason to wait. So let's roll up our sleeves, put our heads together, and make free college a reality for everyone. Because the best investment we can make is in our future.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). 19+ Reasons College Should be Free (Pros and Cons). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/reasons-college-should-be-free/.

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