Massachusetts Daily Collegian

No, college shouldn’t be free

By Lucas Coughlin

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Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day that caught my attention. Some college graduates are, apparently, appealing to the federal government to forgive their student debt “on the grounds that schools deceived them with false promises of a well-paying career.” Though most of these applicants are unlikely to be successful, their suits are indicative of the mien of many recent college grads. With college more expensive than ever, and with so many recent graduates struggling, it is worth asking if perhaps we ought to reevaluate the purpose of a college education.

The plight of the post-grad is often overstated: The Economic Policy Institute, for example, finds that an improving labor market has positively impacted the employment levels of young college grads. Similarly, young people today have a significant advantage over older workers in their familiarity with technology. More concerning than statistics, though, is the perceived breach of the implicit social contract between American universities and prospective students, which for a generation has justified increased costs with the superior living standards for graduates. While living standards overall are constantly improving, the link between a college degree and a remunerative career is more tenuous than ever.

The WSJ article is especially interesting in our current political climate. Young voters this election cycle have been particularly vocal about their financial anxieties, primarily involving the price of attending college. Bernie Sanders, who like the most of the left would like America to emulate Europe, has long advocated for an adoption of the continental system of higher education. Sanders’ plan involves making all college totally debt free, paid for in theory by a tax on financial transactions.

His website states that “In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world,” but the evidence suggests that such a plan would hinder this goal rather than further it. For all the issues in American higher education, our school’s stack up incredibly well against the rest of the world.  According to the Shanghai ranking system, eight of the top 10 universities in the world are American, with only the ancient and prestigious Cambridge and Oxford universities cracking the list from the rest of the world. American schools draw huge numbers of foreign students, who come seeking a college experience that is simply not offered for the majority of students elsewhere in the world. We pay more for school than most counties – at least outright; European schools are financed through taxes that the American public would never accept – but consumer choice has forced colleges to adapt their models in order to better serve the public, which in turn has led a superior product.

As is the case in any market that is at least partially free, there is also a wide range of choice among American universities. While costs have generally increased, it is still possible to get one’s education degree cheaply. For example, costs can be cut by attending junior colleges for a year or two, or by attending a commuter school. While this may deprive the student of the typical “college experience,” it is typical only in America. Few European schools have built-in housing, and most students live in nearby apartments paid for themselves or their parents. Similarly, European and Asian schools have poorer facilities, fewer professors per student and far fewer amenities than many of their American counterparts.

If you want to see what a state-run education college education system would look like in America, our high schools provide something of a preview. While our colleges and universities are the best in the world, our high schools lag significantly behind in test scores and graduation rates. In a market dominated by the state, consumers are less able to find a product that suits them. Because of the limited – or in many cases nonexistent – range of options, many parents are forced to send their children to failing schools. Under the auspice of the state, universities will lose the incentive to try to improve their product. There are many problems with American colleges on the whole, and affordability is high on that list. The quickest path to amelioration is through increasing the range of available options, not creating an essentially uniform system through the artless hand of the state.

Lucas Coughlin is a Collegian Columnist and can be reached at [email protected]


12 Responses to “No, college shouldn’t be free”

  1. Jack Sullivan on January 26th, 2016 9:06 am

    A job guarantee is hollow and most who propose it haven’t thought it out hardly at all. Should a degree in gender studies assure me certain job offers while a degree in physics “entitles” me to others? Is an entry level job at a food processor, for example, acceptable in either case?? It is more of an immature pandering for votes the way most in the elected class communicate it. I have no doubt at least one candidate for president has a principled outlook about it. But that campaign shows no more reflection on it than any other.

    Most odd to me is the disconnection within the ranks who promote free secondary education. On the one hand, endless academic and economic studies are presented intending to prove how broken the system is, measured primarily by cost and employment. Almost simultaneously, some who accept those conclusions also favor collection more taxes to ensure it is free and therefore almost certainly aggravating the problem as they see it. Putting more, unmotivated people into a free educational system will do nothing to improve the outcome. At least not as they define what is an acceptable outcome in the form of jobs.

  2. Zac Bears on January 26th, 2016 12:34 pm

    Free public tuition wouldn’t create a uniform system. We already know that because our public college and university system is by far the best in the world. Encouraging already great public universities to expand and bring in even more students would only make them even better, and the market pressure would reduce costs at private universities as well.

    As to our public K-12 system, it is failing because schools are funded by an inequality-laden property value based system. If teacher salaries were truly competitive with the private sector and all public schools were funded by a broad-based income tax instead of property taxes, many of the red herring K-12 concerns you cite would disappear.

  3. Angry Reader on January 26th, 2016 11:35 pm

    Sad to see students demonizing the fight for free higher education. You should be siding with your peers and not with the interest of corporate elites. Your argument is laughable.

  4. Kris on January 28th, 2016 12:37 pm

    Zac, “encouraging already great public universities to expand and bring in even more students” is a pretty major part of what’s causing an increase in the costs of higher education. In order to attract students, university need to put together sports teams, build huge recreation centers, need more classrooms, cafeterias, dorms, and professors, and they need a big marketing budget to do it. If you want to go to college to expand your mind, just go on Wikipedia instead. If you want to go there to secure a job that pays well enough to get out of student debt, either choose a major that has high demand, or be damn good at one that doesn’t. I just got back from France, where they are far more socialist than us. I was working with a bunch of international business students out there. They are frustrated that there is about 11% unemployment, so when they get their degrees, they can’t necessarily do anything with them. They are also frustrated at how difficult it is to be a break out success there. Engineers, for instance, really don’t get paid that well. On the other hand, imagine being someone who didn’t go to college, and gets paid almost as well as an engineer. Why are you paying for an education that the other guy volunteered for? And guess what, public school teacher salaries are higher than private school.

    Angry reader, are you angry, or happy because you are laughing? Your name and your submission are contradictory. Maybe I’m just confused because those evil 1%ers have scrambled my mind so that I don’t give in to peer pressure and bizarre leftist indoctrination.

  5. Kris on January 28th, 2016 12:52 pm

    Oh, I almost forgot. Per semester, for the current academic year at UMass:

    Tuition: $857
    Fees: $6,228.50
    Housing (conservative estimate): $3,000
    Dining: $2,530.50
    Total: $12,616

    Bernie supporters think they are getting 100%. They’re actually getting a little under 7%, thanks to taxes on financial transitions (read: retirement plans).

  6. umassalum on January 28th, 2016 2:16 pm

    That $12,616 is for Massachusetts residents…try being out of state:

    Tuition: $4,968.50
    Fees (Curriculum Fee, Service Fee, Activities Fee, Shared IT Fee, Basic Health Fee): $10,283.5
    Honors fee: additional $300
    Engineering fee: additional $287.50
    Dining: $2,530.50
    Housing: $3,095
    Total: $20,877.50 (with honors fee: $21,177.50; with Engineering fee: $21,165; with both: $21,465)

  7. Alumni Achieved on January 28th, 2016 4:16 pm


    You seem to completely forget that Massachusetts is a levelfunded state, which means that property taxes are not the issue. And the average teachers salary in Massachusetts is 69,000 a year and rising, far above the state average of 36,000. Aside, tuituion costs are rising as federal student loan guarantees mean that universities may raise their cost with little to no concern about the financial future of their students; Uncle Sam ensures the money will come. So if students will take out the loans to go to your school, why lower prices? It has nothing to do with cost of public universities keeping the system in check, as you seem to suggest. You are the one with the red-herrings, and your claims are patently false on many, many levels. Educate yourself before masquerading as an expert:

    Public university expansion would create overqualified, and mismatched employees in the workforce. While education is great, it would not be responsive to the state, nation, and world’s demand and instead quite often be a ineffective use of public resources. Rather, encouragement of innovation and pursuit of what individuals want, rather than an emphasis on university, is what required.

  8. anon on January 29th, 2016 3:22 pm

    Those numbers ignore the fact that most public universities don’t cover up tuition costs by hiding it under “curriculum fee.”

    Reporting it the way umassalum did is accurate, but it makes it look like all those fees evenly contribute to the 10K price tag. In reality, that’s basically just the curriculum fee, which is UMass’ way of making tuition look approachable to instate students. If you correct for how misleading Kris’ numbers are and live off campus, you’re getting about 90% of your costs covered, not 7%.

    You can bet that a “curriculum fee” wouldn’t survive in that way under a President Sanders or under a bill from a blue congress.

    If you cut $24K a year in costs for out of state students and about 10K for instate would open the university to qualified students who are only barred by costs from getting in. Sanders’ plan is the only one which addresses that issue. Clinton’s targets debt, which is an afterthought for students who cannot afford school in the first place.

  9. Kris on February 7th, 2016 3:01 pm

    My numbers weren’t misleading, I got them off a website that had in the address. Housing and food wouldn’t be part of tuition, so you’d still be looking at 50% not 90%. Jesus Berniebots are bad at math and logic.

  10. The_Chairman on February 9th, 2016 10:23 am

    Previously you said 7%, now you say 50%. That is a meaningful difference…who is the one who is bad at math and logic? Luckily that other poster noticed the discrepancy, otherwise you would not have said anything.

  11. Kris on February 10th, 2016 7:37 am

    The other poster made a very large assumption about tuition, whereas I used data directly from a UMASS website. 7% using real numbers, 56% using huge assumptions, 90% disregarding math and logic altogether. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. The_Chairman on February 17th, 2016 9:11 pm

    What is the assumption?

    I assume you are referring to the fact that Sanders is in favor of eliminating “tuition” and hasn’t said anything about fees. It is likely that he is unaware of the shenanigans of UMass and other schools, where costs are simply renamed to something else. As has been pointed out, UMass deliberately buries the true cost of schooling under “fees” while continuing to advertise the low tuition. That is the definition of misleading.

    It really isn’t a leap of faith to say that Sanders would likely favor eliminating these bogus “fees,” since he has spoken numerous times about education is a right, how college should be free, etc. If we modeled the U.S. system after the European system (which Sanders supports) then housing and food would not necessarily be included in his definition of “free”. So while 90% is incorrect, 56% is not a huge assumption at all.

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