Columnists debate free college provided by the government.



To start, let me say this: I view the question of whether or not college should be free as a fraction of a much larger problem, one that pertains to capitalism in comparison to human rights. The structure of capitalist economies is dependent upon the following: maximization of profit, private property, free and accessible markets, market mechanisms that self-correct and the free exchange of labor and services via the division of labor. Intangible elements like “self-interest” in capitalist economies drive the market forward and push individuals toward innovation and competition. In today’s economy, this “self-interest” is realized in the spirit of entrepreneurship. Oftentimes, human rights are sacrificed while companies and individuals seek to maximize their financial gain. All of this begs the question: can human rights and capitalism coexist?

Education is a fundamental human right, one that should not be dependent on one’s financial status. However, it has become the case that many citizens struggle to attain a higher education in America for financial reasons. The average student loan debt is approximately $37,693 and the average federal student loan debt is approximately $36,510 per borrower. Students from low-income families are often held back by the possibility of incurring huge amounts of debt, and some opt not to pursue college.

Furthermore, “undermatching” is becoming an increasingly large problem in the U.S. Undermatching is a phenomenon that exists in American higher education in which qualified students from less affluent households attend less selective colleges or don’t attend college at all. These students are often talented and are less likely to pursue higher education due to their financial status, and therefore are not able to truly explore their potential.

From an academic misalignment perspective, there is a generous dissonance between students’ high capacity and the less rigorous educational programs in the less selective institutions they often attend due to their financial status. Graduating from highly selective colleges and universities tends to lead to better career opportunities and higher wages compared to graduating from less selective institutions. Because of these career and economic benefits, undermatching has been generally considered an undesirable occurrence in one’s educational trajectory. There is also little knowledge about its long-term, post-college consequences.

Additionally, students’ loans often fluctuate based on certain demographics they fulfill. The Pew Research Center estimates 61% of Asian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or more education, along with 42% of white adults, 28% of Black adults and 21% of Hispanic adults. Hispanic adults (52%) were more likely than those who are white (39%) or Black (41%) to say a major reason they didn’t graduate from a four-year college is that they couldn’t afford it.

There is also a growing earnings gap between young college graduates and their counterparts without degrees. In 2021, full-time workers ages 22 to 27 who held a bachelor’s degree, but no further education, made a median annual wage of $52,000, compared with $30,000 for full-time workers of the same age with a high school diploma and no degree, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While my intention of this debate is to focus on the humanitarian reasons for free higher education in America, I think it is also necessary for me to briefly address the economic reasons.

An important cause of current levels of economic inequality is the growing demand for college-level skills combined with slow growth in the number of young people receiving degrees. Economists view education as a “human capital.” America’s economy demands that workers possess increasing levels of knowledge, skills and abilities that are best acquired through postsecondary education.

A study done by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in 2013 found that at current levels of production, the U.S. economy would have a shortfall of five million college-educated workers by 2020. It was estimated that, by that time, 65% of all jobs would require bachelor’s or associate’s degrees or some other education beyond high school, particularly in the fastest growing occupations such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics,
health care, and community service. This study did prove to be true: as of 2022, 75% of new jobs require a college degree, while only 40% of potential applicants have one.

Granted, I’m not an economist. I am, however, a queer woman of color who is more than familiar with systemic discrimination. While eliminating college tuition would not nearly eliminate the numerous inequalities presented by American society, it would certainly be a step in the right direction in terms of equity.



Don’t let Safia fool you. Nothing is free. To be exact, $182.9 billion every year is not free. That is how much was spent on tuition and fees at four-year higher education institutions in the 2019-20 school year according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in addition to the $225 billion in government grants, contracts and appropriations. In order to make college free, the government would need to cover this $182.9 billion cost, representing an 11% increase in government spending.

But it gets worse. If college becomes free to students, colleges will cease giving out merit and need-based scholarships, and competition to keep prices low will go away. Therefore, it is certain that colleges will charge the government significantly more than they currently charge students. It is not difficult to imagine institutions abusing the funding, and treating it as a jobs program for administrators who already provide little benefit to students. I want to make it clear that while I am arguing that college should not be free, I am not defending the outrageously high tuition costs at some schools. I am also excluding two-year (associate degree) institutions because the opportunity they offer is quite limited.

As easy as it is to say “increase government spending,” don’t be misled. That means higher taxes. That is my biggest objection to making college free: it doesn’t actually make it free, but rather it makes everyone pay for something that benefits a limited segment of the population. It is easy to justify paying taxes for a fire department, police officers, public K-12 schools, infrastructure, having a military and more because it clearly benefits all taxpayers. Welfare such as SNAP, Medicare and Social Security can also be easily justified because even if they don’t directly benefit everyone, they help the poor, which benefits society as a whole. Higher education doesn’t fall into these categories. While it may seem nice to have an entire society of people who have read Aristotle or Descartes, it is wholly unnecessary.

It may not be clear to many of us inside the UA bubble, but only about one in three people in our country have a bachelor’s degree. While there is evidence that the education these people receive benefits others around them, it would be wrong to extrapolate that everyone should receive that education. There lies another reason to not make college free: by making it free, it implicitly becomes expected that everyone should take advantage of it. But there are plenty of professions that wouldn’t benefit from an increase in education; it really doesn’t matter if a construction or factory worker has gone to college. Higher education should be for those who truly want to expand their horizons as a thinker, not for people who are simply there because their parents told them to. There are plenty of high paying professions that don’t require higher education. Therefore, it would be harmful to encourage people to go to college if they won’t utilize their education in their career because it will cost the taxpayer lots of money and waste four years of the person’s life when they could have been working full time. Right now, without an influx of students that would occur if college were made free, there are already far too many people in college who shouldn’t be there, wandering aimlessly without knowing what they want, and majoring in something of little value like communications.

As you can see, I am making a pragmatic and moral argument on the basis that higher education is not a magical society-curing solution, but rather it is an investment in oneself with the hope that the acquisition of additional skills will lead to higher earnings in the future. My opponent also points to equity as requiring the removal of financial barriers, but she ignores that college enrollment is itself not equal. Statistically, African Americans go to college at nearly half the rate of Asian Americans, so is it fair to make them pay equally for something that will benefit their community substantially less?

My opponent points to debt burdens as a cause for people not getting education, but I just don’t buy that. The average debt burden of a graduate of a public university is $32,000, which can be paid off in less than five years with a typical monthly payment. According to Forbes, at the end of 2021, only 5% of student loan borrowers were delinquent. Furthermore, debt is something that can easily be overcome if a student makes a few good decisions. Within a university, the cost of a bachelor’s degree is very consistent regardless of major, therefore if a student chooses to major in Social Services, which according to CNBC has a median salary within five years of graduation of $35,000, they have no one to blame but themselves. There is a very simple solution to the debt problem: don’t spend lots of money on a degree with very limited earnings opportunities.