College tuition is expensive. Whether attending an in-state public institution, an out-of-state public institution, or a private college, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars for a 4-year higher education is a burden upon most families. In the United States, it is common that families cannot afford to pay full tuition, but with limitations in financial aid and scholarships awarded by universities, they find themselves debating between accumulating debt, or potentially not receiving a high education. There has always seemed like there must be a solution for mitigating the debt attending college leaves approximately 65% of students in America2. In the past decade there has been a surge of support for having all public universities and colleges be tuition free. This would seem ideal, right? Attend a public institution and you will graduate college with a degree, and debt free. Yet, after reading Robert Birgeneau’s article “Free College Tuition Would Only Increase Inequality”1, I am certain that this could not be further from the necessary solution to the student debt crisis we face.
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Birgeneau’s article was written during the time of the 2016 election, when Bernie Sander’s, very publicly and outright, claimed that one of his largest goals was to eliminate the tuition costs for public colleges and universities. Sander’s believed that this was the best way to reduce the immense economic inequality in America. However, Birgeneau explained how free tuition the solution could not possibly be free tuition, as it would only be taking away essential funds from lower class students and dispensing them to upper class individuals who could afford tuition without aid. He then focused on how the California school systems have been utilizing the “return to aid” and Cal grant programs in order to make attending a top public university affordable for all in-state students. Sander’s proposed program would eliminate these two successful forms of providing aid to California residents.
Since the 2016 election did not waive in Sander’s favor, and the goals of our current president do not seem to be including eliminating student debt, individual states have started their own campaigns for free college tuition. Being that I am from New York, and a majority of my peers from my highly diversified, and poorly-funded, public high school are attending in-state public institutions, I am quite invested in understanding my states newfound urge for free-tuition. The New York Times reported that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has pledged to cover tuition costs for all students attending city or state colleges, as long as their family earns $125,000 or less, per year4. Previous plans in other states have only included 2-year colleges but expanding to 4-year universities would require a much larger sum of funds to cover costs. I would assume that with free tuition there would be an increase in enrollment in NY state and city schools, which seems like it would be a positive benefit of having free tuition. However, I can attest that in their current states, most SUNY’s and CUNY’s aren’t prepared for a larger student population. Classrooms are already crowded, and graduation rates are alarming low, with the average four-year graduation rate after four years at SUNY schools being only 47.8%5. Students would be using tax dollars to attend schools where there is only a 1 in 2 likelihood that they graduate and receive a bachelor’s degree, which is typically required to obtain any job that would allow students to escape the chain of poverty their family may have been experiencing. The median income in New York in 2017 was merely $57,782. That would mean that a majority of families in New York would qualify for free college tuition. Therefore, the taxes to the wealthy would need to be raised enough to cover this difference, allowing thousands of students who would otherwise not attend college, afford the opportunity for a brighter future. However, we cannot overlook which schools they are limited to attending with these funds. Schools that are not academically or physically able to support hundreds of additional students, without additional government support to hire more teachers, build new residential buildings, and improve their graduation rates. Although New York’s plan is more refined that Sander’s, the drawbacks and risks about free tuition do not seem to be worth the wager of millions of dollars.
Yes, I must concede, just as Birgeneau described in his article, most high paying jobs do require a college degree, therefore those who can’t already afford college never have the chance to try and bend the gap between the wealthy and the poor. There is a definite need for changing the policies for affording college in the United State, but it is vital that we look at the larger picture, rather than just focusing on debt, and how many more students could afford college. We cannot just create legislation that makes all public schools’ tuition free, and individual states cannot overlook their own ability to support a free tuition program.
Simply allowing all students to have free-tuition wouldn’t only be taking tax dollars to pay for wealthy student’s educations, but it would also ultimately not benefit the students that truly do need funds. Instead of focusing on making receiving a good college education cost lest, policy makers are too consumed and focused on subsidizing the costs. Research reports that only 13 percent of college graduates are truly equipped with the needed skills and tools to be successful in the workplace3. Therefore, students can attend low-tier institutions with the same financial package as a student attending a top-tier university. Instead of generalizing all students as needing free tuition, it is necessary to not only differentiate between students of different economic classes, but also students attending different levels of universities.
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California also has a financial aid system that works. New York is struggling to improve graduation rates, and public-institution ratings, yet they haven’t successfully made any changes to the way universities are run, or to how federal state financial aid is distributed. We live in a country that promotes necessary change, and the need for change is very obvious, yet we have been too consumed in fighting the wrong battle. Maybe it is time for New York, and the rest of the country, to take a note from California, and adapt the way they handle debt, college tuition, and the way colleges are run to match the needs of students who are actually in need.
- Birgeneau, Robert. “Free College Tuition Would Only Increase Inequality.” The Berkeley Blog, 29 Feb. 2016, blogs.berkeley.edu/2016/02/29/why-free-college-tuition-would-increase-inequality/.
- “U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019.” Student Loan Hero, 4 Feb. 2019, studentloanhero.com/student-loan-debt-statistics/.
- James, Kevin. “Bernie’s Bad College Idea.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 15 Mar. 2015, 10:00 am, www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/2015/05/27/why-bernie-sanders-free-public-college-plan-is-a-bad-idea.
- Mckinley, Jesse. “Cuomo Proposes Free Tuition at New York State Colleges for Eligible Students.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/03/nyregion/free-tuition-new-york-colleges-plan.html.
- Norton, Vince. “Why Free College Is a Bad Idea.” Norton Norris, 14 June 2018, nortonnorris.com/free-college-bad-idea/.
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