Should College Be Free: Examining Access, Accountability, and Economic Impact

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During the election of 2016, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supported the idea of a ‘free’ college for all students attending public colleges and universities. This intrigued the minds of the youth due to skyrocketing tuition rates and the large acquirement of student debt in order to earn a degree. Though this may sound like a golden opportunity that allows success to those who cannot afford the luxury of higher education, it comes at a cost. Free or limited tuition rates have shown lower attendance from students enrolled, fairness issues, and possibly economic growth strain due to the funding of ‘free college.’


The Promise and Costs of Free College Education

Sander’s plan for free college was estimated to cost 75 billion dollars a year. As a Republican senator, Everett Dickerson said, ‘a billion here, a billion there; pretty soon, you’re talking real money.’ (Everett Dickerson) At some point, the budget will be spread thin, causing easier access to students, but a lower quality of education might also limit capacity on the number of students that are allowed to enroll each semester. Taxes can only be increased to a certain degree. The cost of tuition may be able to be covered on the taxpayer’s dime, but things to consider would be the cost of books, supplies, room and board, and professor salaries.

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The idea is to shift the cost of higher education from students to taxpayers. Eventually, all citizens will end up paying for their education and the education of others through the accumulation of payment on higher taxes. By doing this, colleges will not address their ‘wasteful cost structures’ (Kelly, Andrew P) and will continue, if not become worse, at managing the mass amounts of money colleges collect.

The Financial Strain and Quality Dilemma

As a part-time student and part-time worker paying out of pocket for my education, I understand the appeal of free college. However, when students pay high rates for their education, there is a ‘financial stake’ (Lane, Charles) involved, which encourages hard work, good study habits, going to class, and overall being accountable as a student. Free tuition does not give students the same type of responsibility. It ‘may breed entitlement, indifference, or both. If there’s anything young people don’t need, it’s that.’ (Lane, Charles)

The main goal that is trying to be achieved through free tuition is easier access to higher education for citizens in the lower middle class. As Organ began its tuition-free policies for community colleges, it was quickly seen that well-off students were benefitting from free tuition more than the intended audience. Due to the Pell Grants, state grants, and Oregon opportunity grants, lower-income students were receiving free education before Oregon became a free community college state.

Because of that, a large amount of the program’s money went to students with wealthier backgrounds who could afford to pay for their education. ‘According to the report, students from households in the top two quintiles of Oregon Promise recipients will receive a combined 60% of the program’s $11 million in disbursements’ (Cooper, Preston). The wealthy students received, on average, $2,500 for school. Meanwhile, the low-income students received, on average, $640.

Accountability and Educational Responsibility

The distribution of money is unfair, but there is little that can be done when colleges offer free tuition for everyone, regardless of their economic status. Together, a college education is a true investment in one’s future. The financial burden is a choice because there are other options available that are far cheaper and have less of a time commitment. Recently the desire for a college degree has risen due to the advertisement of a successful future. However, there are many options for vocational and trade schools that give the same opportunities for success with a cheaper price tag attached.

Equity Concerns and Consideration of Alternatives

When I graduated high school, all of my friends planned to attend either a community college or a four-year university. The problem is maybe a handful of them knew what they wanted to peruse. Though many students are confused about the field of work, they want to go into. People continue to spend exuberant amounts of money on tuition; they will either discontinue or change consistently, causing a rise in personal debt. The reason I bring this up is that the financial stake makes the individual pursuing a higher education focus more on whether it is the right fit for them quicker than if it is free. As debt rises, a student has to make the decision to either continue taking classes and making their education more of a priority or find a different path in a trade or vocational school.

Choosing the path of attending college and working hard to pay for it forces students to have a greater appreciation for their studies. Instead of dreading showing up to class or scoffing at the list of assignments given, students can see not only what their time outside of the classroom is working towards but also their improved knowledge gained when spending time communicating with the professors. As a young adult, there are some days when I truly believe there aren’t enough hours in a day to complete everything on my to-do list. If it weren’t for my financial stake in my education, my attendance at classes on campus would not be ideal for future success.


Free tuition would be an amazing way to relinquish the burden many students have due to debt if it ‘weren’t an indiscriminate solution.’ There is not a large enough budget to give everyone the opportunity to attend college for free. Even if there was a ginormous pot of money that could fund this large of a project, there are many things that would have to be figured out in order to distribute money wisely and cost-effectively. There would also need to be a greater incentive for students to exhibit ideal attendance and continue to perform with grades that would lead to a large number of successful graduates so that free tuition is not funding failing students.


  1. “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy” by Tressie McMillan
  2. “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream” by Sara Goldrick-Rab
  3. “Free College: The Past, Present, and Future of a Radical Idea” by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall
  4. “The Case for Free College: Why Higher Education in America Should Be Universal and Free” by Nader Habibi

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Should College Be Free: Examining Access, Accountability, and Economic Impact. (2023, Aug 14). Retrieved from

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