Should college be free or at least debt-free?

One of the few education issues to emerge in this presidential race has been free college as proposed by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders wants tuition-free public campuses in the model of several European countries. He also wants a substantial overhaul of student loan programs so more students can graduate without crushing debt.

Student loans have particular interest here in Georgia where 62 percent of college graduates leave campus with a degree and debt.

As the AJC reported in October:

At public and nonprofit colleges in 2014, seven in 10 graduating seniors had student loans. The average debt amount for those graduates was $28,950, a 2 percent increase compared to the class of 2013, the report by the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access and Success found. The report includes a state breakdown showing the average debt for 2014 Georgia graduates reached $26,518, up from $24,517 in 2013.

 

Here is a debate on student debt by Olivia Alperstein, a 2014 Wesleyan University and the communications and policy associate at Progressive Congress, and Neal McCluskey, the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. They wrote these counterpoint essays for InsideSources.com.

All College Should Be Debt-Free

By Olivia Alperstein

$1.2 trillion — that’s the estimated collective college debt total for this country.

College education should be debt free. Student debt not only burdens young people during college as they work to finance each semester but also affects post-graduation economic security.

Financial burden often becomes a factor when otherwise-fit students choose to drop out, and the consequences of late payments or defaulting on loans can affect credit scores for decades to come. We should focus on providing all students with equal opportunity to gain knowledge and skills to pursue careers of their choice.  Debt shouldn’t affect a person’s ability to get a good education, and colleges and debt collectors should not profit from turning students into cash cows.

Nicole A. Evans / SCAD-Atlanta

Nicole A. Evans / SCAD-Atlanta

Like many recent college graduates, I take the issue of college debt personally.  I had full financial aid, and I took work study jobs to support myself. I’m one of thousands of graduates across the country who benefited from the Perkins loan program, a federal low-interest loan option for low-income students.  I took out loans only as needed and maximized my work study hours — and with the ideal circumstances in place, I will still end up paying around $12,000.  I’m very fortunate.

I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I never had to take out private loans, which tend to have exorbitant interest rates and whose collectors sometimes pose as federal agents and threaten people with jail if they don’t make payments.

Others two or three class years behind me are not so fortunate. The Perkins loan program was gasping for its last breath after Congress had refused to renew it. The authority to make new federal Perkins loans actually expired on September 30, 2014. In January 2016, President Obama revived it — sort of. Students who qualified for Perkins before or after 2014 will continue to borrow under the same terms, whereas those who enrolled or qualified after 2015 will have limited access to the program, thus bearing more of the financial burden.

Perkins also comes with a grace period, so you have some time after graduation to get a job and position yourself before you have to start making payments out of pocket.  Other loans have interest accrue during your time at school, and payment is required immediately upon graduation — I know students who graduated in three years precisely because they felt they couldn’t afford another year of debt under these terms.

When I graduated in 2014, the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds was 9.1 percent. My half-generation graduated with the effects of the recession, with decreased employment prospects in many fields and increased competition for lower-salary positions.

The over-competitive job market has led to an unrealistic pool of applicants for short-term internships and jobs. Social Darwinists are probably rejoicing at this perfect storm of survival of the fittest, but in reality many incredibly qualified applicants with diverse experiences are falling into the black hole of the post-recession job market.  For those barely making a decent wage to begin with, student loan payments become a significant financial burden.

Some argue that all low-income students should enroll in community college, where costs are less than half of most private colleges. That still leaves those students with thousands of dollars of debt, though, and telling low-income students to avoid going to Ivy League colleges is discrimination based on economic status. No one should be barred from elite college opportunities due to future debt.

Debt affects not only where people attend college but also whether they stay. Now, even among middle-class students who drop out, about one-third say they left for financial reasons.

Why does college cost so much in the first place? The Cato Institute agrees that college tuition costs have soared far too high, but Cato predictably blames the federal government for helping to create this situation. Its solution? Cut federal aid programs like Perkins and the Pell grant, a grant specifically aimed at low-income students and for which I qualified all four years of college. Let students struggle through college alone and carry the full cost of their education. That’s unsustainable and cruel.

Countries such as Germany have eliminated college tuition entirely. The least we can do is make college more affordable and forgive student loans.

I believe that education is a fundamental right and a vital tool for success in today’s economy. As salary expectations have dropped, a degree is more important than ever to guarantee a decent, livable wage.

College students are future leaders and innovators. We must ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to pursue their educational goals, and that means getting rid of college debt. The only debt students should graduate with is a debt to society, for which the only payment is a commitment to contribute to and improve the world around them.

Counterpoint: Debt-Free College? Maybe

By Neal McCluskey

The cost of college is almost certainly too high, and a consequence of that is alarming student debt. Does that mean our goal should be to make college debt free? Depends how you do it.

First, let’s be clear: While the cost of college is probably much higher than it should be, and millions of people enter but never finish, a degree still tends to pay off handsomely, with the average graduate making far more over her lifetime — some estimate $1 million more — than someone who ended their education after high school. Average debt for grads who took out loans — about $35,000 — is therefore a good investment in oneself, and even the lowest-income Americans would be welcome customers for lenders as long as they were demonstrably college ready and planned to major in a marketable subject.

This gets us to why debt-free college may not be a great idea. It would be terrific if college were debt free because covering the actual costs of one’s education was manageable without debt. But if higher education was made debt free because we were forcing taxpayers — people who do not reap the $1 million reward — to directly subsidize it, that would be bad.

A huge reason the price of college is so high right now is government “help.” The federal government has subsidized students for decades, allowing colleges to raise their prices at rates far in excess of household income and even healthcare, and encouraging students to demand ever-greater luxuries. Use other peoples’ money and your incentives to demand efficiency wither.

In just the last year studies from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the National Bureau of Economic Research have found that very large parts of college prices are attributable to federal aid expansions, and other NBER research has suggested that all but the most academically oriented students put heavy value on “amenities” such as “student activities, sports and dormitories.”

So why not get states and the federal government to spend directly on colleges in exchange for schools charging less, or not at all? To different extents, that is what Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for.

But subsidizing schools directly comes with even bigger problems than subsidizing students. While American higher education is wasteful and expensive, it is also the most vibrant, responsive higher education system in the world. Seventeen American universities are in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ top-25. None are from Scandinavia, which Sen. Sanders holds up as the ideal.

Similarly, the Center for World University Rankings puts 18 American institutions in the top 25, while the highest-ranked Scandinavian school — Sweden’s Karolinska Institute — comes in at 71.

The United States is also by far the most popular destination for people studying outside their home countries. No wonder the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in Australia has ranked the American higher education system the best in world.

Why is U.S. higher education so good relative to the rest of the world? Because almost every other country runs higher education on the “government provides, you go free” model. The result is often poorly maintained infrastructure, big classes, hard to access professors and languishing students.

There’s also rationing. In Sweden, universities get 2.5 applications for every one available slot. Germany is infamous for tracking students into or out of higher education by a test called the abitur. In France, high school principals, essentially, decide whether a student gets to be on a college track, and the weeklong baccalaureate exam determines if they can go to a university.

The solution to these problems — our spiraling costs, just about everyone else’s moribund systems — is not more government money, but less. It is to phase out aid and have people pay with their own funds, or money they get voluntarily from others. Then institutions would be unable to raise their prices with impunity, students would demand fewer expensive frills, while the system would retain the freedom essential to innovate and respond to ever-changing student needs.

 

Reader Comments 0

34 comments
class80olddog
class80olddog

Everyone should not have to go to college in order to get a good job,  However, since there is no current certification below a college degree that assures an employer that a potential employee can read, write, and do simple arithmetic, they decide to require a degree. 

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

It isn't feasible to have it free for everyone. In countries where it is ' free' very few people go to college. Kids are set on college track at a young age. And you can only major in what you pass the exams for. That isn't what the US is about. We have more colleges and the ability for people to go whenever they are ready. We could go to a different type of idea but that changes a lot of what we stand for

Charlotte Manning Harrell
Charlotte Manning Harrell

Correct everyone does not need to go and a degree shouldn't be a requirement for a job just because the employer likes the one it sounds. However, college should be affordable for all who are capable and want to attend.

Cobbian
Cobbian

Just two ideas: 


1.  Means test Hope scholarships so that the scholarships go to those who don't have parents who can pay for their education.


2.  Open more technical schools and work on training people for other kinds of jobs - plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics.  Be sure these are heavily subsidized and Hope Scholarship eligible.  


I am of an earlier generation and admit what seems do-able to me is not acceptable in these days.  I spent 6 years working my way through undergraduate college, living at home with my parents.  They supported my daily living and bought me that first car; I paid for college and paid for gas and maintenance on the car.  I thought that was fantastic!  I missed a lot of the "college experience", I suppose, but the life experience was priceless.




weetamoe
weetamoe

Loan forgiveness or free tuition would be an injustice to the bright hard-working young people who would not benefit from such largesse and to taxpayers forced to underwrite the sort of illiterate tyranny exemplified by the current circus at Emory and events at many other colleges and universities.

GB101
GB101

College education is not free, never was free, never will  be free, is not free in Germany or anywhere else.  Olivia Alperstein misses the obvious: when she says education should be free she is saying that someone else, someone other than the student and his family, should pay for it.

Markroddy
Markroddy

@GB101 What "pays" for the free education in Germany is students finishing with no debt, and so having a lot more money to spend on the economy, get good jobs, start firms. It's funny how you harp on the idea of "free" when you clearly have no idea how things actually work over there. It's if anything even better than free, it's like an early investment in the country's citizens that pays big dividends when the citizens have good job prospects and more money to spend from having do debt. It's a sensible way to go about it.


Should we also cancel US K-12 education because it's "free" and force students in debt for that? Should we get rid of public roads? All these things provide benefit to the community as a whole.

class80olddog
class80olddog

One point I agree with - college COSTS have risen exponentially - a lot in the increase in fees and book costs.  Fees to pay for a new "Taj Majal " student Center. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

There is one way to make college "debt-free" - refuse to give student loans to students.  Who else makes loans to people who have no credit rating, no employment, no repayment plan, and no collateral? (except the "too big to fail" banks back in the early 2000s - remember NINJA loans?)

CSpinks
CSpinks

Yes, for those whose secondary school academic record suggests the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to benefit from college enrollment.

ChessMaster
ChessMaster

This 'crisis' has been created by the tremendous increase in the cost of educational loans. Why not restrict federally insured loan programs to a maximum equivalent of the cost of the top in-state public university? This would help stabilize the cost of education by forcing students to consider if it is worth paying more for a private education.

As for free college, California had tuition free college educations until Reagan was elected Governor. Any California high school graduate could attend an public college for the cost of books and student fees. They also had a three tier school program with two year Jr Colleges, four year State Universities, and four year Universities of California schools. This worked well for a long time and greatly stimulated the state's and our countries economies.

Starik
Starik

Join the military. Use the current educational benefits. 

jerryeads
jerryeads

When the folks who run the HOPE found that they had money coming out of their ears from "blue-collar" types buying lottery tix, they offered HOPE to everyone and not just those who were income qualified as had been initially designed. The legislature immediately started cutting back on their 'share' of university support. College tuition skyrocketed, especially at schools that hire researchy types who hate undergraduate kids with unbridled passion. Rich kids got HOPE, which parents used to pay for the kids' bimmers at Athens and midtown Atlanta, and poor kids got to work at fats (no typo) food restaurants instead of going to college. Republicans took over. Even more rich kids got to go to college with bimmers, even more poor kids worked at fats food restaurants.

Unless and until YOU elect people who give a rat about people instead of money, that trend will continue. And the income gap will continue to grow, you naive knee-jerk blue-collar types who get suckered into voting Republican for irrelevant single issues (and yes, we need to watch people who call themselves Democrats who will be tempted to sucker us too).

That said, the low-income kids I teach bust their tails to make it. I am immeasurably proud of their resolve. College doesn't need to be free, as the rich kids will simply show up in RRs instead of bimmers. I think the poor kids might take it for granted. My guess is we need to fix HOPE, not raise taxes enough to feed another four years of paid schooling.

By the way, I'm rabidly for university research and its benefits to the country. But the folks who do it shouldn't hate undergraduate teaching with unbridled disgust. It should be a privilege.

derickrichards
derickrichards

I was on the bus one day at the University of Georgia many years ago overhearing a conversation between two girls. "Yeah, this is my seventh year," she says.  "I'm in no hurry to graduate.  Daddy is paying for this." Speaks volumes about how much someone appreciates something given to them for free.


irishmafia1457
irishmafia1457

Sure it should ! Also free food, free housing, free cars, free entertainment etc for the entire nation  America what a great place !!! ......Wait a minute who will pay for all the FREE stuff?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Leaving aside the issue of cost--who pays for this "free" college education?-- there is another angle to consider, which has to do with the faculty at such universities. For about a century, American public and private colleges/universities have followed the educational policy of "shared governance" between the faculty and the administration.  The faculty handles the internal educational matters (instruction, hiring and retention of faculty, policies regarding students) and the administration handles the external practical matters (funding, tuition, relations with local government, policies regarding the university). 


I don't see shared governance continuing if the state runs the universities by guaranteeing that they will be debt-free for the students. The faculty will simply be the workers, and the administration will be the tools of federal management.  Yuk.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

So the first writer would have the 50-70% who never graduate from college subsidize those that do.  Neither writer points out the obvious-that something that is underpriced gets over-utilized.  The city of Austin tried free bus service, but ended the practice when the system broke down from people riding it for a block and then getting off.  There needs to be better utilization of community colleges.  Regular colleges need legislative pressure to better utilize their facilities.  I would be surprised if many universities had even 70% utilization of their classrooms at peak times.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

The idea of free is lost on so many. When people point to other countries they seem not to know what they are talking about. Those colleges are very difficult to get into. There are exams that are competitive. And then once you attend you don't get to choose what you study. You get to study what you are told to study. And very few attend college There aren't jobs for the college graduates we have. Why would we encourage more people to go? Employers have been requiring degrees for jobs that don't need them for a long time. Because it is free to them. So people feel as if they have to have a degree for a job that requires is because it is no cost to the employer. It is a crazy system. We must get over this idea that everyone should go

Wendy Stewart
Wendy Stewart

At least 2 years to be trade or job ready. 2 additional years should be able to be paid off with community service type duties.

Amy Jones Hatch
Amy Jones Hatch

Also paying for a lot of fringe benefits. Posh dorms with 24/7 workout. Laundry services. Hidden cost adds to the tuition

gapeach101
gapeach101

No, that's not how it works.  Dorms, laundry service etc are all part of room and board, not tuition.  

Leon Anthony Jr.
Leon Anthony Jr.

I think they should eliminate unnecessary courses that have nothing to do with a students major/program. We are just paying a lot for extra courses that is not in our field of study. this can reduce time and money.

Astropig
Astropig

 This is largely generational.The parents and grandparents of these kids that want "free" college would have never imagined not paying their own way to get a foot on the ladder of success.GI's (after WWII) had paid in ways we can't imagine.Our parents went to night school and community college because they loved their kids enough to sacrifice for them-and didn't expect the somewhat better off guy down the road to pay for it.


What these kids are really asking for is a way to extend their carefree youth on society's dime. They want the family that saved their money and did without to pay for their own kids schooling to also pick up the cost of total strangers' kids.They want people that will never set foot on campus to pay taxes that will be used to make sure that they can have that big house on the corner lot with the pool and gourmet kitchen.They want life's trophies just for showing up-Just like they got when they played T-Ball at 6 years of age.


ErnestB
ErnestB

@Astropig


I'm glad you referenced the GI Bill it is credited as a factor in stimulating the economy after WWII.  I wonder if those advocating for debt free education would consider service in the Armed Forces, Peace Corps or Americorps as a means to build education benefits prior to entering college/training programs?  At the same time, there are some opportunities to offer service after college/training programs have been completed to work off the debt.


My point is are we looking at solutions that could benefit our country and its citizens?

Travelfish
Travelfish

One thing not mentioned above: in those European nations experimenting with "free" university learning, at most only 60% of adults do so. Taxes are crushing yet still inadequate to fund the experiment.

Over 90% of American high school graduates go on to either university or some other form of higher learning.

Where would the money come from?

Markroddy
Markroddy

Travelfish, taxes are not "crushing" in Europe, total taxes in most of Europe and USA are around the same. Although US income taxes are lower, most other taxes (state plus local, property, commercial, pay-roll) are usually a lot higher. I've done business in both and seen this first-hand. The difference is Europe just spends their taxes on social improvements, while US spends the taxes on things like giving corporate sweetheart welfare to friends of politicians, and trillions on mideast wars that do nothing to benefit the US or it's citizens. And it's not that funds are "inadequate" in Europe, it's just that most students like in Germany go to trade schools and do quite well afterwards, while Americans get stuck ever deeper in debt.


The money itself just comes from having students finish with no debt, getting jobs and having a lot more money to spend on the economy, and also getting their own businesses started. Americans can't stimulate the economy as a contrast.

Falcaints
Falcaints

The "for profit" motive does not allow for free tuition, much as it does not allow for free healthcare.  The rise in taxes that would be needed to pay for these programs is anathema to US credo of individualism.  For better of worse that is the system under which we work.

xxxzzz
xxxzzz

Better economics education would help.  There is no free lunch.  Students who want free tuition and college presidents who think they can raise tuition endlessly both need to take economics classes.