What Exactly Is Free College?

Ann M. Pearson

Free is good. We all like getting a free deal. And free college education is all the rage right now. In fact, it is one of the most exciting, interesting, and confounding topics in higher education at the moment. Now everyone knows that free in this conversation doesn’t really mean free free, but the thought of shifting the cost associated with all or part of college to someone/something else riles people up nonetheless. Students and parents may see this proposal as a way to receive crucial educational credits without the burden of lifelong debt; while educators and legislators are attempting to allocate funds in creative and innovative ways to meet the perennial challenge of establishing an educated workforce that sustains the economy and makes life better for a larger percentage of citizens. Thomas Jefferson struggled with the same dichotomy of global aspiration and fiscal reality.

All levels of education are expensive—from kindergarten supplies for teaching primary colors to five-year-olds to autoclaves in college laboratories for STEM majors. Someone has to pay for all that stuff—as well as for personnel salaries, facilities and infrastructure, instructional materials, and the ever-increasing technology needs of a group of gathered scholars.

The most compelling reason to provide a free college education rests on our long tradition of democracy in America. If we truly are “all created equal” then the fact that one person has money and another doesn’t should not impact our “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those who lack a basic education cannot cash in on those happy rights as easily as those who do. It’s not impossible, as pundits prove who trot out the well-known examples of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg to show that not everyone needs a college education to be successful. Genius aside, the minimal level of education most people need to acquire jobs that allow them to live a life beyond the poverty level has increased significantly in the last 50 years. Not surprisingly, the cost to obtain that education has significantly risen as well.

An oft-promoted reason we should not provide free college education also rests on our long tradition of democracy in America. Capitalism and autonomy posit that if individuals want to succeed (i.e., obtain educations, get jobs, become successful people, etc.) they are able to do so by dint of hard work and perseverance, but that the government shouldn’t interfere with this exercise. This line of thinking erroneously implies that federal and state governments do not currently fund the educations of college and university students. Higher education financial aid is a complex and somewhat mysterious entity in and of itself that deserves and requires its own bottle of wine to discuss. Billions of dollars for students’ pursuit of higher ed already come from the government in the form of grants, loans, and scholarships. Could that money be shifted around and allocated differently? I don’t know.

Is it sustainable to expect future generations to live their entire lives held down by considerable debt to acquire an education? On the other hand, should taxpayers be obligated to pay for others’ education? Is there a middle ground? Can we find ways for students to pay for college by working at jobs on campus that we otherwise would pay non-students? That’s sort of what then-President Obama recommended in 2015 in “America’s College Promise.” Tennessee is making community college tuition free using lottery revenue. Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016 calling for federal and state governments to cover the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities. Detroit tapped into private donations to offer free community college tuition to its high school seniors—paying whatever is left over after federal and state funding is used. Other cities propose offering free or reduced tuition for students who stay off drugs or otherwise out of trouble and on track.

These are creative funding schemes, and time will tell if tacking on two to four more years of free public education will indeed be a prudent investment for America. The conversation is worth maintaining if only to recognize the vast potential of the individual students, families, and communities that stand to benefit from our collective effort. We certainly don’t have all the answers about this sometimes divisive topic, but we ought to keep asking the questions.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on May 31, 2017.