The not-so-nice part about free college tuition

There’s no doubt about it. Many who attended a public university following the 2008 recession shouldered a great, financial burden for their education. When state budgets shriveled up with the economic downturn, public universities took a hit in funding. That translated into higher tuition nationwide and a trillion-dollar student loan debt.

college grad

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Iowa was not immune to this problem. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the state of Iowa (adjusting for inflation) decreased funding for higher education by 22 percent during this time. Despite that decrease, it had the fifth smallest tuition increase of 50 states. That means Iowa universities did a better job than most, in delivering a cost-effective education during the recession. And while the state of Iowa is showing signs of resuming more adequate funding of our public universities, it is still struggling—like other states across the nation—with budget constraints.

These tumultuous years have led Democratic presidential contenders, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, to offer a correction by making promises of free college tuition for all.

Sanders wants, “the best educated workforce in the world,” with college that is tuition-free. He plans to accomplish this by having Wall Street speculators pay for it. Clinton wants to see, “…incomes rise and ensure Americans get ahead and stay ahead,” with college that is tuition-free, although her plan asks students to work 10 hours per week. It would be paid for by requiring states to meet higher education funding requirements and by reducing or eliminating certain tax deductions of high-income earners. Both candidates believe a college education is an entitlement—whether or not students or their parents are financially independent or financially struggling.

This all sounds very nice, but there are three big problems with these niceties.

Making our colleges tuition-free won’t give us what Bernie Sanders wants—the best educated workforce in the world.

Based on feedback from employers, our colleges are not adequately preparing graduates. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “The majority of employers feel that colleges and universities must make improvements to ensure graduates’ workplace success. Fully 58% think improvements are needed to ensure graduates gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level positions at their company… and an even larger portion (64%) think improvements are needed to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to advance within their company.”

Promises to make college tuition-free might give us the most degreed workforce in the world, but there’s no correlating evidence that it would provide the best educated workforce.

Secondly, making our colleges tuition-free won’t give us what Hillary Clinton wants—rising incomes. There are insufficient, high-paying jobs for recent college graduates. The Pew Research Center reported from a 2012 study that about 28 percent of recent graduates were underemployed—either working part-time or working in a low-paying, full-time job.

Getting through college, without any debt, may be helped by providing free tuition. But unless we are able to produce high-paying jobs, we may just have more graduates who are dissatisfied and underemployed.

The third problem is the message.

We’re a generous people in this country. For those who show a financial need, taxpayers have historically helped to fund tuitions through Pell Grants. What grants don’t cover, student loans, part-time jobs, and scholarships can fulfill.

But to tell our high school graduates that they are all entitled to a tuition-free college education could be harmful. Your very first lesson as an adult shouldn’t be that the world owes you something.

There’s a more reasonable approach to solving the trillion-dollar student loan debt. Allow graduates to refinance loans at available, lower interest rates as recommended by both Sanders and Clinton. Also, graduates can now enter repayment agreements that don’t exceed 10 percent of their income—no matter how high the student loan debt. And, we can continue Pell Grants.

It’s possible to provide needs-based solutions without going overboard by starting another entitlement program with lots of potential, negative consequences:

  • Free tuition at public colleges could make it tougher for private colleges to compete.
  • Charitable giving by generous donors could diminish because if college is free, what would be the point of offering scholarships?
  • The grading system could be dangerously dumbed down to make sure students meet minimal, government-mandated GPAs, in order to keep free money flowing to colleges.
  • It could create another bloated government agency, in which the cost to administer the program diminishes any positive effects.

The recession has been a rough ride for many individuals, not just college students. It’s tempting to latch on to campaign promises of free stuff, but it doesn’t solve the root of the problem.

Efforts to improve the education process and improve the economy in order to produce high-paying jobs—that graduates are qualified to fill—would pay bigger dividends.

It’s the better message for students.