Should State Colleges be Free to Counter Student Debt Crisis in the US?

Earning a degree is an exciting experience, but since the tuition fees have risen a lot, not all can afford to
follow their dreams. Many decide not to enroll in college, while those who opt to do it often end up with
a huge student loan debt following them in some cases to their sunset years.


As per Bloomberg, the student debt crisis is about to get worse as the next generation of graduates will include more borrowers who may never be able to repay. According to CNBC, the student loan default rate more than doubled between 2003 and 2011, and 40 percent of borrowers are expected to fall behind on their loans by 2023. Student debt has more than tripled since 2004, reaching $1.52 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve — second only to mortgage debt in the U.S.  The student debt crisis could seriously affect the US economy.


Student Debt Crisis
Source: American Banker


The Pressing Results of Student Debt:


  1. Second-largest personal debt among Americans.
  2. Leads to depression and anxiety.
  3. Prevents Americans & Canadians from buying houses/cars/ to start a family.
  4. Influences whether or not citizens go to university/college


Student Debt Crisis
Image Credit: Patch


So, we have to decide whether the current educational system works well or it requires some essential improvements, such as the implementation of programs that would be absolutely free. Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of free colleges.


Should State Colleges be Free to Counter the Student Debt Crisis in the US?

Co-authored by Anuradha Dutta


At least two-thirds of US citizens strongly think that state colleges should be free to ensure fair access to advanced education to one and all, whereas nearly three-quarters of them think that college education should be paid and it should be free for only a few.  Both the views are worth examining and have their pros and cons.


Arguments in favor of a free college education


Rise in the educational qualification of the population


Pricey education is not everyone’s cup of tea. Even the people who care about education may not prefer to seek college education for the financial hardships it may entail. If state colleges were free, a larger number of people may opt for higher education, leading to an overall rise in education level.


Improves preparedness for acquiring complex and advanced skills


A country which has most of its population undergraduate may not be ready to move into streams for which college education can be the most crucial link. College education exposes students to advanced knowledge in their chosen subjects and improves the preparedness to take up complex pieces of training for high-level jobs. As knowledge-based jobs are increasing by the day, workforce equipped with or possessing the basic qualification to acquire advanced technical skills is the need of the day. Tuition-free state colleges can help in filling the skill gaps and help the America’s economy grow faster.


Equal opportunity for all


There is a widespread belief that charging for college education deprives those unable to pay for it. Knowledge should be free for those desiring to gain it, think a section of students. They believe that state universities should act to facilitate education to one and all without discriminating on economic grounds.


It Can Challenge a Stereotype Surrounding a Higher Education


Some give up on their goals not because they are poor but just because their mother and father did the same. Those whose moms and dads earned a bachelor’s degree have more chances to go to college than those whose don’t. This is mainly because their family expects them to end up with a graduate diploma. This stereotype can be challenged by free colleges so that everybody can earn a degree, no matter what kind of education his or her parents have or don’t have.


Arguments against making state colleges free


Entry of non-serious students


It is feared that non-serious or undeserving students will find entry into the colleges if state colleges were made free for students. In the absence of monetary obligation, it will be easier to get admission into a free-college for even the students with little interest in the pursuit of knowledge.


Unnecessary burden on the exchequer


Those against the free state colleges think that free education puts an unnecessary burden on the exchequer. Limited infrastructure may not be enough to accommodate a large number of students who may head towards colleges in the absence of fees.


Detrimental to the academia


As long as there is a price to pay, most people would want to use their resources judiciously. On the contrary, free education can turn academic centers into hub non-serious students.


Free Programs Lead to Higher Tax Rates


Many argue that changing the system may require a lot of funds, both state and federal ones. Since most states are running out of their higher education budgets, there is a good question concerning the way how this money will be raised. The implementation of the changes is likely to give rise to taxes and thus many taxpayers cannot put up with this idea.


Eliminating the fees means subsidizing high-income students. Those who could pay for their degree would rather choose to make use of a free program. As a result, the country with its taxpayers will subsidize the riches. Some opponents claim that it would be more appropriate if there were free ed programs accessible only for low-income and poor applicants.


Subsidizing Low-Paying Majors


Some critics state that it doesn’t make sense for the country to subsidize the degrees in majors which don’t help to get a well-paid job. It makes sense to support STEM programs to train more scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists but not actors, artists, and musicians.


Higher Risks of Educational Inflation


Elimination of the fees might result in an increased number of graduates which would compete for few workplaces. This might lead to a decrease in the value of bachelor’s degrees.



Whether or not colleges should be free is a matter of great debate. There are some pressing arguments in its support


The debt burden on American students is rising tremendously. As per the 2017 statistics, a student loan to be paid swelled to $1.5 trillion, which was 30% more than what was recorded four years ago.


A student in the US with a bachelor’s degree can earn at least 57% more compared to someone who has just completed high school, revealed an estimate drawn from a 2016 study.


This means, as more people are able to get employer-desired credentials, more people would manage to secure high-paying jobs which would otherwise lie vacant. Consequently, more money would circulate in the economy and raise the living standards of a bigger segment of the population. This also means fewer people would need credit to meet their various needs.

Student Debt

According to the supporters of free state colleges, with increased income of the citizens, the government would be able to take in more tax revenue, which can be used in funding these colleges.


Economic benefits are not the only reasons given in support of tuition-free colleges. Advocates of free colleges strongly believe that social standing should not prevent the poor and the middle-class from reaching their full potential. Quality higher education being the most powerful liberator should be open to all despite their social standing. According to them, the state should remove the impediments for those who cannot afford or easily access higher education, to create a more even society as this was what America’s founding fathers wanted it to be.


The only criterion, however, to gain access to such colleges should be the ability to benefit from it, which can be ascertained by the careful selection process, think the supporters. While there should not be any bar on admission, filtering out the undeserving and less serious candidates is a must to ensure the quality of output does not dip.


Countering the student debt crisis in the US


The graduates in the US are struggling to pay down their education loans and there is no sign of well-paying jobs to ease the burden. While the present dispensation in the country claims that the economy has improved, but that is not reflecting in the job market, at least for the graduates.


According to US Federal Reserve, a massive $1.5 trillion student loan (ending the second quarter of 2018) has been recorded, which is the second largest after the mortgages. The worst is this number is growing. Education financial planners in the US have been raising concerns that the cost of borrowing is also on the rise. This is double trouble for the student borrowers.


In the current situation, it is of little surprise that the student loan has the highest delinquency over 90 days and out of 10 borrowers more than 1 student is delinquent.


Student Loan Crisis
Image Credit: Jason Wheeler


While the students in the US are burdened with debt, the colleges and the lawmakers are not ignorant if their woes. Over the years, plans to ease the debt burden on students have failed or could not be continued beyond a certain period.


Tuition-free colleges have actually not helped in relieving the students of financial distress as they follow the “last dollar in” policy, which means the state would take care of the tuition fees after grant.  For financially weak students this is less helpful as they have to part with their grant money to pay for the tuition fees and have to arrange funds for other associated costs like food, housing, books, and other fees as their grant money is utilized paying the tuition cost.


In US free college programs are not the same everywhere, as it is difficult to meet all the needs of the students associated with education. The programs vary and one can come across various types. At present, the active programs are providing aid based on the needs of the student or developing programs that ensure that students have their tuition covered by the aid.


Debt-free college programs are also very popular, but not frequently practiced. People advocating for increasing college access consider debt free more preferable as the program covers extra expenses that come with a college education. This explains why this model is less practiced. The extra aid apart from tuition has to be arranged somehow and this is where the problem is.


College access programs in the US, according to advocates, have been well-intentioned, but not perfect. However, they are of the views that these programs can be worked upon and improved. It depends on the will of the political class.


The financially weak and the middle class are struggling to afford a college education. In the current situation, even the wealthier students are finding it difficult to keep up with their college costs. However, the idea of debt-free or tuition-free colleges is still in its infancy, more so because of the scale of its implementation, believe experts. The free-college movement has a murky future under the Trump administration, but the advocates believe that a couple of elections in the future would decide if debt-free or tuition-free colleges will ever be a reality in the US.


Anuradha Dutta


Author Bio:


Anuradha is business, health and education journalist. She is an avid reader and loves to travel. You can connect with her on LinkedIn

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