Socioeconomic Peculiarities Of College Education In The USA

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A current ongoing controversy in the world today surrounds the topic of tuition free public college. The topic came to worldwide attention in the 60’s when the tuition-free state universities in the US started making social and legislative changes, which began the era of the student loan crisis. The changes began after WWII, as the GI Bill increased the number of Americans wanting to go to college, and continued into the 1960’s, culminating in Civil Rights and student protests. These events, the new influx of college eligible Americans, and their related demand for education (which outpaced supply and funding), led to the end of free-tuition state universities, the start of universities as a for-profit business, and the start of the student loan crisis under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Johnson’s arguably well-intentioned legislation created a huge influx of college eligible Americans. Instead of continuing the tradition of tuition-free public colleges by increasing tax funding to meet these demands, states began reducing the per-student funding across the board, and state schools began charging tuition for the first time since the Morrill Land-Grand Act. (Sanchez) The topic comes up again when Obama unveils the America’s College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost. (Bumphus) Proponents of tuition-free college argue it will decrease student debt, benefit the economy and society, and give everyone the opportunity to the college education they deserve; while opponents argue, strained state budgets, a decrease in graduate rates, and financially illiterate students. A simple compromise to this ongoing controversy is to make two years of college as free and universal as high school, building on state and local college programs, and expanding Pell grants to make student debt more manageable.

Proponents for tuition-free college argue it will help decrease crippling student debt. Student loan debt—at almost $1.4 trillion in outstanding federal loans—has ballooned into the largest source of consumer debt after housing. “An increase in student debt alone should not sound alarm bells, but debt which cannot be repaid should—and the evidence suggests more borrowers with large balances will not repay their debt anytime soon” (GovTrack) This will create major hardships not just for borrowers who suffer serious financial penalties for failure to repay, but for the taxpayers left with the bill. The student debt will not completely disappear, it will just substantially lower.. About 2 in 3 members of the class of 2018 graduated a little deeper in debt than the classes before them. Last year’s graduates with a bachelor’s degree averaged about $29,200 in student loan debt – a record in the USA.

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Proponents of free tuition argue the US economy and society have benefited from tuition-free college in the past. “Creating a clear path to the middle class and ensuring our nation's economic prosperity means opening the doors of higher education to more Americans.” (U.S. Department of Education) In the 1940’s to the 1970’s and even some colleges in the 1980’s, students postsecondary education was free. In these eras the nation's economy boomed because they were not burdened with college debt. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill in 1944 and President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Student Loan legislation in 1958, millions of veterans, women, and minorities came to college because they could afford it and knew their education beyond high school would make a significant difference in their future livelihood. They bought cars, took out home loans, worked hard, and advanced in their careers. trust in one another and key institutions, as well as civic habits of volunteering, voting and charitable giving, were also on the rise among this Greatest Generation. (Transcript of Morrill Act)

Proponents of tuition free college argue everyone deserves the opportunity to get a college education. “The Obama administration is committed to restoring our world leadership in college completion and ensuring every student has access to an affordable and high-quality postsecondary education.” (U.S. Department of Education) We must also recognize the “college for all” goal cannot be narrowly defined to a four-year degree. Rather, postsecondary education can also lead to certificates and open doors to thousands of well-paying jobs, including engine-maintenance technicians, plumbers, electricians, dental hygienists, and radiologic technicians will move them and our economy forward.

Opponents of tuition free college know schools might have to create wait lists or expand the ones they already have. State budgets could become strained, which might lead to cuts are decreased access to the programs students want to take. Free college is not really free — someone has to pay for it. “Eliminating tuition at all public colleges and universities would cost at least $79 billion a year, according to the most recent Department of Education data, and taxpayers would need to foot the bill.” (U.S. Department of Education) Either more money would have to be given to the schools, or they would have to create waitlists. This means the taxes for education-related purposes might go up, or funding for something else might be diverted to pay the influx of fees.

The opposition argues with tuition free college graduation numbers might drop, those who do graduate might not be as well prepared for their occupation due to students taking college less serious because they do not have to pay. (Sanchez) We find countries with higher proportions of college graduates tend to be countries with higher college costs for students. Japan, Canada, the US, and Britain are all among the most expensive countries in terms of net cost. Yet, these countries all have higher incidence of college completion among residents. “We could end up making college worse by making it free. This might not even produce more college graduates: Spending cuts at public institutions tend to result in lower graduation rates.”

The opposition argues students might not learn to become as financially literate or independent as they should be, choosing to stay dependent on government programs whenever possible. If students grow up having poor management skills when it comes to money because of these aspects, they will have no one else to blame other than those who supported this proposition. “The heightened priority given to financial literacy is largely driven by students’ increasing use of debt to finance college, and a perception they lack the skills and knowledge needed to make these financial decisions.” (GovTrack) This information was researched based on those currently in college and paying off their tuition debts. If this can be said for current students than those who will be going into college with free tuition will be even more financially illiterate than those already in college.

There are upsides and downsides to this controversial topic, both of which have decent points. Tuition-free college may be beneficial to the economy in the long run, but it will take time for it to get there. Graduation numbers may drop and wait lists may expand. Debt from student loans will decrease and everyone will get a fair shot at the education they deserve. With all of this said a suggestable compromise is to make two years of college as free and universal as high school, building on state and local college programs, and expanding Pell grants to make student debt more manageable.

The first step is to make two years of college as free and universal as high school. This idea stems from Obama’s America's College Promise proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students to earn critical workforce skills and the first half of a bachelor's degree at no cost. These Promise programs are state and locally funded, all are intended to encourage students in achieving their goals. They also provide critical training programs that are job specific. Funding America's College Promise will provide $61 billion over the next decade to make two years of community college free for responsible students. This allows them to earn the first half of a bachelor's degree or an associate degree at no cost. (U.S. Department of Education) Tennessee and the City of Chicago initiated free community college programs. The scholarship is coupled with college counseling, mentorship, and community service. (Fact Sheet) A further step is to expand Pell grants making student debt more manageable. The number of Pell Grant recipients will expand over time, providing college access to millions of additional low-income and middle-class students across the country. This compromise helps decrease crippling debt by making the first two years of college free, therefore easier to manage and achieve goals. From free tuition comes economy and society benefits in educating more students. The suggested compromise also allows everyone the opportunity to get an education.

The compromise suggested will satisfy the arguments of the proponents because although the tuition is not free for a four year college, after two years of free college this proposal makes the rest of your college financially manageable. This satisfies the proponents first argument, which is helping decrease student debt, by making the first two years of school free. This means the students are spending less money to achieve a four year college goal. The proponents also argue that the economy and society benefit from tuition free college. I believe this is proposed in the compromise because students will still be financially literate and independent because housing and other college needs will still need to be covered on their end. With free tuition only being for the first two years, this should not negatively affect waitlists. Two years of free tuition would actually increase graduation rates instead of dropping them. If after two years they want to further their education than other financial steps would need to be taken. The proponents of tuition free college also argue that everyone deserves the opportunity to have a college education. Making the first two years of college as universal as a high school will give those who might not have had the opportunity to try college before realizing it is not something they want to pursue. This means no money is being wasted and everyone gets an equal shot at free education.

The opponents argue that tuition free colleges will have to expand waitlists and strain state budgets. I believe the compromise satisfies this need because the tuition is only free for the first two years and housing and other necessities will still have to be paid for. Opposition argues that graduation numbers might drop, but with students getting the opportunity to try out college not every one of them will want to continue after the two years are up. This would increase graduation rates for those who decide to stick with it. Lastly, the opponents argue that because of tuition free college students might not learn how to be financially literate or as independent as they should be. The compromise suggests that they still pay for other aspects of their schooling, therefore still learning how to financially balance their needs.

College is one of the greatest drives of socioeconomic mobility in America, but if we do not try to keep it within reach of lower class families, it could have a negative effect—serving as a barrier, instead of as a ticket to the American Dream. Every hard-working student deserves a real shot to earn an affordable degree or credential which offers them a path to civic engagement, economic security, and success. Despite the Administration's actions and the leadership of innovative institutions, much work remains to meet our goal of once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. The Administration says they will continue to act within its power to improve college access, affordability, and completion. (Fact Sheet)

Works Cited

  1. “America’s College Promise.” Edited by Walter G Bumphus, AACC, 27 Oct. 2017,
  2. “College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity.” U.S. Department of Education, (U.S. Department of Education)
  3. “FACT SHEET - White House Unveils America’s College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students.” The White House, National Archives and Records Administration, 9 Jan. 2015,
  4. “Protecting Access to Student Transcripts Act of 2019 (H.R. 3761).” GovTrack,
  5. Sanchez, Claudio. “How The Cost Of College Went From Affordable To Sky-High.” Paying For College, NPR, 18 Mar. 2014,
  6. “Transcript of Morrill Act (1862).” Our Documents - Transcript of Morrill Act (1892),
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