Three Truths About Free College
As free college education has entered the forefront of American political discourse, it is important to accept three truths that together can help frame the discussion of free college.
The first truth is that a collegiate education is desirable. Education has traditionally been a gateway to a better life and the skills learned at college are correlated with a better salary, more interesting work, and access to a larger variety of professions. It is easy to see how this is true and is difficult to dispute. There is no way one can be a software engineer without first learning to code. An accountant could not understand a balance sheet without first learning the terms involved. In the United States these things have been primarily taught in the universities by faculty who are distinguished members of their fields. Thus, the benefits of college have been reserved for those who had the means to enroll in and attend collegiate universities. In several ways this barrier to a better life goes against the very fabric of our nation and the ideology that any person has the ability to climb up the economic ladder with enough hard work and perseverance. This is where the argument behind free education holds merit on a moral ground as we strive to provide a more equitable solution to education.
“…collegiate level education is already free…”
The second truth that must be accepted is that the cost of college has risen drastically, and not always to increase the quality of education. My Alma Mater is a prime example of this phenomenon. A division one public school which according to their FY19 budget, received 219 million dollars in state funds and 474 million dollars in tuition and fees. Yet they only spent 362 million dollars on the “education and general” line item in 2018. Therefore only 46% of the total budget spent on the core purpose of education. In comparison, in 2004 the university received 167 million dollars in state funding and 299 million dollars in tuition, but spent 257 million on the same “instructional and general” line item meaning 55% of the revenue was directly for education. During the correlating years in-state tuition increased by 96%. That is a 9% decrease in funding for the primary purpose of education while cost have almost doubled. This is not a unique occurrence as many public universities across the country increase administrative cost to fuel their various initiatives. If we are to discuss the merit of funding tuition, we must also review the usage of these funds to better understand what public funding is to be used for.
“Education has traditionally been a gateway to a better life…”
The third truth that we must accept is that collegiate level education is already free, but Americans desperately want to have the traditional collegiate experience. As the son of an engineering professor the mirage was broken for me as I sat at the table and watched her learn the coding language python from free online videos, which she would later use to teach her class. There was no part of her career experience or her PHD in engineering education that allowed her unique access to these videos, and she had no background or previous understanding of the language. What she got for free would cost each of her students thousands of dollars over the course of the semester. The same philosophy runs true for other areas of programming, mathematics, accounting, networking, and language. With the expansion of the internet we have seen an increase in online schools but society has seemed to skip over the fact that many of the skills which were reserved for those who attended college can now be learned simply with access to the internet. Similarly, in the field of information technologies, many companies have found that lower-cost certifications offered by companies such as Cisco, Amazon, and Microsoft can be equally if not more indicative to a prospective employees’ readiness to achieve success in their position. Unfortunately, America is not ready to accept these cost-effective alternatives to college, as many post-grad opportunities value accreditations signifying a traditional experience mirroring theirs over the knowledge gained through the education.
These are not the only items surrounding free education. But once we are able to frame the discussion around these truths, we will be able to have an honest discussion about the needs of our country, our communities, and the future of the collegiate system.
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