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Why free college is a bad idea

It may be apocrypha, but I remember hearing a story about the Seeing Eye program's early years. As this version went, early recipients of the dogs received them for free. It was discovered that some of the animals were not being well-treated. The organization then began to charge a nominal sum ($100) for the dogs to all who received one. The mistreatment stopped.

I think of that story whenever I hear about people getting something for nothing. And that includes a college education.

Anyone who wants an education past high school should be encouraged to pursue it. Whether at a state, private, or for-profit institution, additional learning is good for the economy, the country, and for an individual's personal development. Anyone of any age should be able to take classes, do guided self-study, or become an apprentice. Period.

But should it be free? A couple presidential candidates are proposing forgiveness of current student loan debts and making college free for all. While a far better way to spend tax dollars than a new submarine or subsidizing a multi-billion dollar corporation, I would not support such a program.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado, I distinctly remember a few students with whom I hung out in the smoking lounge whose parents were paying their college expenses. And often when a course became to difficult or an assignment too time-consuming, those student would simply drop the class. 

I worked my way through college. The total aid I received was a $500 National Defense Loan which meant I worked 42+ hours a week while usually taking 12 credit hours of classes. Trust me, after spending my hard-earned money on a course, there was no way in hell I would drop it and waste that money.

Given the cost of today's higher education, I don't know if I could do this now. But I would like to think I am financially literate enough not accrue debt the equivalent of a mortgage on a house. I am sure I would still work. I am sure I would pick a school with lower tuition costs. I would live frugally. I would be aware of every penny of my own money paid to the school. I would not expect others to pay for my schooling.

We place less value on those things we are simply given than those things we ourselves earn. That is why I am not helping pay for my grandson's college while he is attending. I have pledged to help him with car expenses, had given him money for savings, will probably give him generous birthday and Christmas gifts or cash, and will see if I can help him with any debt he accrues while in college, but he will need to pay his own way. I want him to value his education.

Might learning to pay one's own way might be the best educational experience of college?

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Reader Comments (5)

You've raised some interesting questions here. Reminds me of the debate over whether to give away bed nets in malaria-ridden parts of sub-Saharan Africa or charge a nominal fee. (Spoiler alert: The most recent data shows that there is no statistical difference in usage rates between groups who received free bed nets versus those who paid for them.)

June 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Morrison

This is a really shallow reason that sounds like it was written by someone who understands neither poverty nor privilege. You use the story of privileged people who are disengaged from their education as a rationale to deny a program that would help underprivileged people access something that should be a public good. Have you looked at public college tuition rates, or the inequities universities replicate by failing to admit POC at rates that mirror their community composition? When urban schools k12 help poor students of color get accepted to college, they struggle to graduate because of the economic hardship it places on POOR families. You are a white person who thinks they got where they are by hard work and responsibility alone, and your notion of how to help people facing more obstacles than you faced is decidedly absent of empathy for people who face racist systems and cannot afford college.

June 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Dillon

Hi Michael,

Thanks for sharing this study. I will chew on it!

I just read Give People Money by Lowery about Universal Basic Income. (An idea I support.) Lowery would argue to not give people nets or any specific thing - just cash.


Hi Joe,

I appreciate the comment. It made me realize that in my post, I did not communicate that I AM a big supporter of means-tested financial aid for those who need it - whether in the form of scholarships or grants. I also like students being able to repay government loans by providing services in low-income areas. I had some of my National Defense loan forgive because I taught in an area of rural poverty for a few years. College or other post-secondary training DOES need to available to everyone - period. I hope the dollars we do spend as taxpayers go to those who need them most. And I still think some portion should be repaid - more for the sake of the borrower than the taxpayer. I don't believe that reflects racism.

And I do need to remember that I enjoy "white privilege" and it does indeed influence my thinking. My good fortune also includes tall privilege, mental and physical health privilege, and stable childhood home life privilege - among many others. While hard work and effort alone did not get me where I am socially or financially, it certainly got me further than had I been without ambition. I'd like to think that is true of all of us.

Thanks again for writing. You made me think hard about my post and it is good when that happens.


June 29, 2019 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thank you for making some good points, Joe, and I appreciate your responses and ability to realize omissions in the original blog post, Doug.

I agree that there should be some incentive to "work for what you get" - whether that's an income from a job, an education past secondary level, in a relationship, or whatever else the case may be. We appreciate what we earn more than what we're given, as a general rule.

As always, those who have lots of cash will get what they want, and not worry about whether they drop classes, fail entire years, or whatever. However, for everyone else (the majority of people), higher education should not be such a (lifelong) financial burden. An educated population may be scary for (some) governments, but it's good for democracy!

However, there are lots of ways to "work", and maybe that means something like tuition and/or housing fees waived in exchange for a certain (reasonable) number of hours worked doing service at the school or a non-profit; a student could have an "hours owed debt" at the start of a school year, based on their fees, with the understanding that they were committing to a certain amount of work to "pay it off" and that until that year's "debt" was cleared, they could not enrol in further coursework the following year. After a certain amount of time (again, make it reasonable and allow for considerations for extenuating circumstances) those hours would convert back into an actual money-debt, so there would be payment one way or another.

Students should also be taught about all the grants, scholarships, and other opportunities out there, as well as how to apply for them. I didn't realize this until grad-school, and sure wish I'd known sooner!

While I don't know that education should be free to every taker - if you have wealth, you don't need free schooling; consider equity, and ensure better access for those who don't come from systemically privileged groups and spaces - I think there are creative ways of "payment" that would ease benefit the student, the institution, and the community. We just need to look further than what is and has always been.

Wishful thinking? Maybe... (can't help it - I'm Canadian!)

July 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKimberley

Thanks, K. I always appreciate the rationality of my northern neighbors!


July 11, 2019 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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