Opinion: Public Colleges Should Be Tuition-Free

Over the past few decades, more and more American teenagers are choosing to attend a four-year college or university. At the same time, college tuition has been rising. In 1963, the average annual cost of tuition for a four-year university, adjusted for inflation, was just under $5,000. Today, it’s almost $17,000. The cost is so high that it is literally stopping people from attending. 

Public education has been treated as a right in this country for grades K-12 since the late nineteenth century. Higher education was not considered a right because it was seen as an extremely specialized option for the rich. Today this is no longer the case. More and more professions require a college degree, making this once elitist institution the key to success and prosperity in this country. It is for this reason that public colleges should be tuition free. 

This is not just a handout; tuition-free college would benefit the United States. Student loan debt is limiting our economic growth. Many college students end up taking out loans to pay for their education. Debt prevents people from buying goods. According to EducationData.org, for every 1% increase in a student’s debt-to-income ratio, their consumption can decline up to 3.7%. Taking this debt burden away from students will boost our economy. Not only will would-be borrowers have more dollars to spend on essentials like rent, utilities, and food. They would also spend more on nonessentials such as games, entertainment, fine dining, and cars. This is a good thing as much of this extra money will go to supporting local businesses which creates jobs and boosts communities. 

Since most student loans are handed out by the federal government, private lenders would not be hurt by a lack of revenue from interest payments. Yes, , the Federal government is effectively already paying for your college; you just owe them for it. 

But even more importantly, tuition-free college would allow people to get a college education that they otherwise would not pursue because they didn’t want to deal with debt. 75% of Americans who decided not to go to college said that they did not go because of the high cost. Additionally, 38% of college students drop out because of finances. Enormous tuition is preventing people from becoming engineers, computer scientists, lawyers, doctors, accountants, nurses, and more. So many essential jobs that are in high demand yet have lower pay like public defenders and general practitioners would be filled by graduates who are not trying to specialize in a specific field of medicine or law or maximize their return on investment and become debt-free.

  This is not the only benefit of universal education. Such a plan could also help people with their mental health. 54% of student borrowers said that they faced mental health challenges because of the financial burden of their loans. But unhappy and unfulfilling labor can also contribute to this. Allowing people to get jobs they will actually enjoy would play a major role in fighting the mental health crisis. 

The next question becomes one of how to pay for it. A debt-free college program would cost to federal government around $80-$100 billion every year. This seems like a lot of money, but the return on investment we get with more people going into higher-paying fields, and having more money means this plan effectively pays for itself. Taxes would not even have to be raised. Our $858 billion military budget is excessively large. Not only do we have the largest military budget in the world, we also spend more than the next 8-9 countries combined. We pay more than double what the second biggest spender, China, pays for their military. If we cut our budget by 10%, which would take us back to the spending levels just a few years ago, we could still have the most powerful military in the world and give all Americans an education. 

We live in the richest country in the world; everyone deserves a free education. Our government already has the resources to guarantee it to everyone. The student debt crisis, the mental health crisis, the physician shortage, and the public defender shortage are all policy choices. Treating college the same way we treat K-12 will make our country stronger, healthier, and happier.

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