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The False Promises of Free College

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“There ain’t no such thing as free lunch.” In a world where nothing is free, idea of attending college free of charge remains a fantasy. The free college movement in the United States is motivated by concerns about disparities in higher education and student debt. While the idea seems ideal, government funding for college students would have harmful implications, as modeled by England’s free college era. Until 1998, domestic full-time students attended public universities free of charge. Today, England’s public universities charge €9250 ($11,380), 18 percent more than the average sticker price of a four-year university in the U.S. A student graduating with a four-year bachelor’s degree in England is now expected to be €44,000 ($54, 918) in debt—over twice the amount for four-year graduates in the U.S. On the surface, free college is a simple solution to lessening student debt and increasing college access, but the rising demand for higher education and the increases in per-student costs would make free college impractical.

Free college is intended to help reduce out-of-pocket pay for students, yet in the long-run, students will have to pay to keep universities from going into debt. Without the money to compensate for the number of classes and services for each student, colleges would eventually cut programs and limit the number of students accepted. In England 1990, student enrollment accelerated, yet universities did not have enough money to provide enough resources per student. Classes became overcrowded and student resources, such as financial aid, gradually reduced. In turn, the 1997 Dearing Report required students to contribute €1000 ($1,116.56) per year to help with the cost of fees. The data indicates that “free college” would eventually fail due to the increasing demand for college degrees, spike in enrollments, and rise in funding per student. All in all, despite the initial promises of “free college,” someone will end up paying for college, whether it be taxpayers or college students.

Implementing a free college system in the U.S. would lessen the quality of public universities. Essential services and resources that are normally provided to students would no longer be available. Today, students have ten time the amount of financial support compared to the free college-era in England and universities have benefited from the increase in available resources. More classes, professors and enrollments have resulted from the 1998 reform in England. The implications of a free college system would be a detriment to student success and reduce the likelihood of attaining a college degree. As the evidence suggests, the logic and intention behind the free college system don’t align; therefore, free college is an illogical solution to benefitting college students.

Charging students for college education would result in more college degrees and enrollments. As stated before, by increasing financial aid and funding per student, more students have a greater chance of earning a college degree—which can be paid through student loan repayments and expenses. Universities in the United States make its students pay for tuition, room and board, textbooks, etc., and, in turn, the government offers financial assistance to its students through grants and loans. In college degree attainment, the United States ranks fifth in the world, with 43.1 percent of its population holding a college degree. Denmark, France, Belgium, Finland, and Sweden—all of which offer free tuition to its students—fall behind the United States. As the evidence suggests, more students graduate with a college degree when universities are more expensive and more financial aid is available. Moreover, as demonstrated by England’s free college system, enrollments hit 600,000 in 1985 when college was free, but in 2013, fifteen years after the college reform, enrollments reached 2 million. Despite the increases in costs, enrollments continued to rise. By charging students for college expenses, colleges are properly funded; in return, colleges are able to take in more students, provide more financial assistance, and have a greater variety of classes for students.

Some critics may argue that higher education should be inclusive to both low-income students and high-income students, and the only way to make this idea prevail is through free college. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders won the support of millennials with his “free college for all” proposal. There is no doubting the appeal to “free college,” especially when millennials are downing in $27,610 of student debt and the demand for a college degree is rising. As put by Professor of Sociology Stanford University Florencia Torche, “a college degree fulfills the promise of meritocracy—it offers equal opportunity for economic success regardless of the advantages of origins”. Sanders and other advocates for free college note, just as the U.S. acknowledged a century ago that earning a high school diploma ought to be free in order to thrive in an industrializing society, college today ought to be free and available to students of the poorest backgrounds. While, on the surface, Sanders’ proposal for free college is a reasonable means of making college more inclusive, his argument fails to provide factual and empirical evidence.

Free college would, in fact, widen the gap that exists in higher education. Students from wealthier backgrounds are more qualified and therefore more likely to gain a university spot under competition than students from less prosperous backgrounds. In turn—while taking into account the limited number of university spots and funding—free college subsidies would disproportionally direct towards students of wealthier backgrounds. During the free college era in England, grants and other forms of financial aid gradually eroded, decreasing from €4,000 per year in 1991 to around €1,000 per year in 1997. It is clear that the free college system would harm students from the poorest backgrounds. Despite popular belief, the evidence provided during the free college system in England suggests that implementing a free college system in the U.S. would only worsen the educational disparities that exist today.

On paper, the idea of free college is appealing, however many fail to recognize the complexities of the system. The free college system would disadvantage students through minimizing university resources, disadvantaging students from low-income families, and decreasing college attainment. The media has primarily focused on the flaws within the current system in the United States, such as student debt and educational inequality, rather than the benefits of the current system, such as more graduates and college funding. While no model is absolute, England’s free-college period suggests that making college completely free would do more harm than good to the U.S. educational system and economy.

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The False Promises of Free College. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
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