Would the U.S. be more successful economically and as a society if the government made higher education free?

Bernie Sanders mentions that many successful countries in Europe offer free college education and that this is the sign of a successful, innovative country.


Manya Whitaker, PhD, Developmental/Educational Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Education; Educational Consultant

User avatar for Manya Whitaker, PhD

Making college free would certainly mean more people would be able to attend, but it doesn't mean that everyone would have equal access to a high quality education. The reality is that private schools have more financial and manpower resource to offer a more extensive academic and social experiment than do public colleges (this is not to say that private colleges are "better"; they just generally have more offerings like study-abroad, money to support unpaid internships, opportunities to research and travel with faculty, etc). People who can afford private school tuition would continue to attend such institutions while others who could not afford private school would likely end up at a free public school.

This becomes problematic because of a trickle-up effect wherein private schools comprise the top institutions in the country and are highly regarded in the labor market. Students from private colleges often get 'scored' higher in graduate school admissions and when applying for jobs (I am not suggesting this is a good or valid practice). These same students then disproportionately enroll in private graduate schools, while students who attended public undergraduate institutions tend to enroll in public graduate schools. When they enter the job market, the academic rankings remain so the jobs students get can look very different depending on the type of institutions they attended (even if they have the same GPA, major, etc.).

So Bernie Sanders' comparison of the U.S. to other countries is not valid. Other countries do not have such a stratified economic or social system that depends on hierarchy to function (the core of capitalism). Giving people access to a college education will not magically make college graduates equal on the labor market. The fact of the matter is that other factors beyond education level play a major role in employment and while Bernie's plan would help mitigate academic differences between people, it would not at all change economic, racial, experiential, language, geographical, or gender differences. And all of those things matter when comparing job applicants.

James Kadamus, National education consultant for K-12 and higher education

User avatar for James Kadamus

Labor economists have calculated that a four year college degree can result in more than $1 million in lifetime earnings than simply having a high school diploma. By that logic, getting more people to graduate from college will result in higher incomes and give the economy a big boost.

But the opposite may also be true. Making public higher education free may devalue degrees and potentially make them worth less. It also may result in lower graduation rates (four year college rates are already surprisingly low) and that means students who have no financial stake in paying for college will attend longer to get a degree or may never complete. Someone, presumably the government and taxpayers, will be footing the bill for many years of college attendance and the costs will grow rapidly.

This is why many people believe every student, even those with the lowest incomes, should have some financial skin in the higher education game, whether it be through work study, internships, loans, etc. Currently, support for students seeking higher education has been limited and there is rising debt for those who ended up borrowing huge sums of money to complete their degrees. These loans affect the jobs they take, where they can afford to live and their financial well being for decades.

So what is the answer? We need incentives to ensure that students can afford to pursue careers we need - teachers, nurses, engineers, computer scientists, etc. But we also need people who have the financial ability to purse music, the arts, and other area that enrich our culture and society. Better grant programs, internships, work-study, etc. will all help provide the support for students. We need a solution to the growing crisis of student loan debt. I've proposed incentives programs where the government (federal or state) forgive loans for students who pursue careers in needed fields. The government would get the money back in tax revenue in just a few years.

Free higher education sounds good, but it not a likely to happen. A new vision that makes higher education more accessible and affordable to a larger number of people is needed.

Gina Badalaty, Parent of 2 kids with disabilities, Professional Blogger

User avatar for Gina Badalaty

While it's true that companies filter better, private colleges to fill the tops jobs, many companies also use the standard of having a college degree as a filter for any job, the presumption being that employees can work their way up from the bottom. (Of course, this is not always true, but with so many applicants per job, it's just another filter.) The Center for Education & the Workforce at Georgetown University reported in its 2013 report on job growth recovery and education that "65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education beyond high school" by 2020. This is clearly an issue that needs a thoughtful look at many solutions.

Another aspect of this discussion is the problem of student loan debt in the U.S. A number of recent articles have been published on the crisis of crushing student loan debt, including this statement from USA Today: "Although student loans make up only 10% of all consumer debt, the amount of seriously past due student loan payments total nearly one-third of all seriously past-due debt payments." Students are heavily investing in debt that is not paying off enough to cover their bills once they graduate.

The problem lies not just in the skyrocketing costs of a college education, but in the quagmire of the student loan system. Free higher education won't solve the current debt crisis but can it prevent or alleviate the growing workforce problem? For some jobs, like teaching profession Vielka brings up, this might be the solution, but it certainly won't solve all the problems. Free public college tuition might possibly alleviate some of the issues, but it could aggravate others.

We need to ask ourselves what the future of higher education looks like in general and reconsider the student loan process. Vocational high schools are picking up the slack for many kids, fostering careers that can potentially earn more income in a shorter time and perhaps pave the way for more small businesses. More and more, students are opting out of college - can that change force a shift in the common workplace practice of requiring a college degree?

Finally, private universities themselves keep raising prices although many have made a shift to not raise prices. Not raising prices, however, means less financial aid for good students in need. Many non-top tier private schools are struggling financially and many have closed the last few years. The state of higher education is already in rapid change. We need to carefully consider what the future will bring.

Amy McElroy, Former Attorney, Writer, Editor, parent of a junior high and high school student

User avatar for Amy McElroy

Of course, if we could magically offer a solid college education to every student in this country, we would be better off economically than we are now. But how can we do that without bankrupting the states that currently offer public college education? I don't hear Bernie Sanders giving any clear answers to that question. And even then, it would not be a magic cure-all for all our economic problems, as the experts above have explained. Some creative combination of increased federal aid, debt forgiveness for public service jobs, and job corps type programs seems like a more realistic place to start from where we are now. Giving a year or two back to the nation as a paid intern--doing jobs for much less than the government would otherwise need to pay workers--while earning some experience in their field after college and repaying college debt is a price I think many students would willingly pay.

Vielka Cecilia Hoy, Founder/Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, Teacher, and Parent

User avatar for Vielka Cecilia Hoy

I agree with Dr. Whitaker as well especially in regards to the free market and requisite hierarchies inherent in that system (I recently discussed this in a blog post).

But I do believe there is a difference between having the major disparities that we have today and giving people better life chances. Even in European countries where college is free, there are still distinctions between colleges and some are certainly "better." In this country, where a bachelor's is required for even any entry-level position, it doesn't make sense to also say that one needs to pay between $120,000 (public college in California) to $250,000 to get there. I use the example of public school teachers who start at about $44,000 per year. We need public school teachers but why would they be required to pay three times their starting salary to become one? In that example, we also see where certain internships or networks aren't as necessary, meaning a public college would be a great option, if not for the price tag.

When we remove the massive debt piece as mandatory in order to make any movement in social mobility, we give people the option to be public servants, pursue their passion, AND make more informed decisions about heading to the private college versus the public one, rather than heading to the public college (or worse a for-profit college/technical school) because they think they have no other choice.

I think that because Sanders identifies as a socialist, we assume he is attempting to create a version of socialism that we see elsewhere. I don't work for him so I don't know for certain. I think the free market is important so I look at his solution--and to some degree Clinton's as well--to be a method to provide greater choice and ability for social mobility.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

User avatar for Dr. Aaron Smith

What Dr. Whittaker said is true, another elephant in the room is that our current and future employees don't have the skillsets to be successful in the 21st century. In The Skills Gap In U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond, states that the skills gap is widening and that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are needed to replace the retirement and expansion components. It's projected that 2 of the 3.5 million jobs will remain unfilled as a result of them not having the skills.

They also state in the Deloitte report that the skills that are most deficient include: - Technology / computer skills - problem solving skills - basic technical training - math skills

Until these are addressed in schools, workforce centers and corporations, our economy will continue to sputter.

Your Answer