The flaws of tuition-free college

Students are often given the short end of the stick when it comes to paying for college. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., who recently ran for the democratic presidential ticket, cited a national student loan debt of $1.3 trillion in an op-ed published by The Washington Post, causing many Americans to support his position on tuition-free higher education. But, free college isn’t actually free.

Legislators who support tuition-free college often fail to mention the costs will be made up by some other means – most likely with American tax dollars. Colleges’ spending would be capped if this type of legislation were to be passed, stymieing the schools’ ability to properly invest in their students, faculty, staff and facilities.

Even if the cost didn’t fall to the taxpayers, college students would be faced with other challenges in higher education.

First, some proposed legislation only supports public institutions, leaving private colleges in the dust. If a student can get a free education at a public school, why would they pay upwards of $50,000 per year for a private education? This could mean extremely reduced job opportunities, the closure of top-notch programs and wasted time and energy for those fully invested in private schools.

Second, no money means no motivation. If students are able to attend college at no cost, what is the cost for skipping class? For not graduating? For not pushing themselves to be better? These motivations shift once the price tag disappears.

A common point of argument when discussing this issue is that other countries provide college educations at no cost. Germany is one of those countries.

In 2013, The World Education News and Reviews reported that 1.2 percent of Germany’s GDP was invested in tertiary education.

WENR also states that the German Rectors Conference, a voluntary association of public and government-recognized universities, put government spending on education in Germany at $25.6 billion. Of that total, 85.4 percent was provided by the government of the individual states.

This seems like a positive thing, especially for students looking for higher education opportunities, right? Wrong. German higher education differs from American higher education in many ways.

In Germany, institutions must be accredited by the state, and in 2016, accreditation dipped below 60 percent, WENR said. So, even if your education is free, it might not be widely accepted.

And, despite the no-cost education German first-time collegiate students were receiving, only 35 percent actually graduated with a degree.

Athletics, clubs and residence halls are commonplace in most American universities, but German institutions cut costs by not offering them. Students live off campus, paying their own rent. The lack of extracurriculars allows students to spend their free time working. Marketplace, a public radio outlet associated with the University of Southern California, reported that at the University of Cologne (Germany), 70 percent of the students work at least part-time jobs.

German schools cut expenses by forcing professors to take on more responsibilities than those expected of an American professor. Germans teach more classes, act as their own administrators and receive a lower salary.

But, does all of this affect the work ethic of the students? It’s unclear.

Marketplace interviewed Frieder Wolf, a political science professor at Cologne, who said Germany isn’t known for having colleges as highly respected as American Ivy League institutions but rather they are comparable to American community colleges. Community colleges are vastly different than large state or private institutions, as well as private, small, liberal arts schools.

Furthermore, high school students who know they are guaranteed free tuition will not put in as much effort when it comes to extracurricular involvement, academic motivation and success and applying for scholarships.

Third, tuition-free college devalues all levels of education. Yes, it evens the playing field when it comes to job opportunities – more applicants will be qualified for higher level jobs. However, this equality means many companies will require a master’s degree rather than a bachelor’s degree. Employers want outstanding employees, and no one is outstanding if everyone’s the same.

Fourth, the economy could suffer from the effects of tuition-free education. Banks make money from the loans they give to students. The money made from those loans is then used to invest back into the economy in various ways.

In addition, Americans who have to pay more in taxes will have less to spend leisurely, resulting in a lull in the economy.

Some institutions have had success with a certain type of cost-efficient or free tuition. The state of Tennessee has a program called “Tennessee Promise,” which allows students to go to community college tuition-free.

The New York Times reports that a 10 percent increase in freshman enrollment in Tennessee two- and four-year public institutions came because of Tennessee Promise. They continued to say even some of these institutions had to turn away hundreds of thousands of students because of the inability to raise tuition during an enrollment boom, which meant new faculty and staff couldn’t be hired and facilities couldn’t be improved.

I understand the burden of paying for a higher education, but with research, planning and smart decision making, that burden can be lightened.

Scholarships, working while in college and choosing the right school to begin with are three ways in which the weight of paying for higher education can be reduced.

  1. Scholarships

At Bluffton University, 100 percent of students receive some type of financial aid to help offset the cost of tuition, fees and room and board. In addition to institution-based grants, external scholarships can be obtained through various means.

  1. Work study

Students who have jobs while attending college can put the money to good use by paying for the education they’re receiving. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Work-Study Program “provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses.” These jobs can be on campus or off campus and are usually related to your major or area of interest.

While many students work multiple jobs to keep up with tuition and loan payments, some don’t work at all. Working while in college also provides another important life skill – time management. Being able to balance work, class, sleep and social time can be difficult task, but many students thrive later in life due to experiencing it in college.

  1. Choose the right school

No one wants to be denied their dream school because of financial reasons, but the reality is, sometimes it’s just not possible. Many of my friends and former classmates set aside their wants and focused on their needs for the first two years of college.

Large state schools often have branch campuses, allowing students to get a degree from a well-known institution at a much more affordable price. It doesn’t provide the same experience as being a main campus residential student, but it saves money. Sometimes, those same universities will even allow and encourage students to join the main campus following a year or two of branch campus education. The cost then rises, but having time to save for that experience while studying at a lower cost can dramatically decrease the debt a student has following graduation.

$1.3 trillion dollars in national student debt seems unsurmountable. Is it? Individual student debt might decrease, but the amount Americans would dish out in taxes could multiply.

Just remember: free doesn’t really mean free.

About the author

Claire Clay

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