Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Letter: Yes, college should be free

By Erika Civitarese

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(Samantha Halm/ Daily Collegian)

(Samantha Halm/ Daily Collegian)

My student debt surrounds me like the construction on the University of Massachusetts campus; no matter how hard I try to avoid it, it shows up everywhere. It keeps me from getting to class on time, it ripped a hole in my backpack and it just puts me in a terrible mood. Like the construction, my student debt affects my every decision: what books I buy for classes versus which ones I can access for free, the amount of hours I work to pay my rent and if I can even continue my education at UMass. You can get rid of the Hasbrouck fence, but student loans are for life.

Lucas Coughlin, another Collegian writer, claimed in his op-ed on Jan. 26, 2016 that college should not be free. I disagree. Higher education is a right. Free higher education would take the burden off students (and non-students) while providing access to good paying jobs and economic advancement to people whose family wealth or personal financial circumstances do not allow them access to college without a life-long debt sentence. The total amount of student debt in the United States surpassed $1.3 trillion in 2015 and the UMass class of 2015 graduated with an average of $28,565 in debt. The burden of student debt makes going into the job market post-college extremely stressful.

The problem with higher education now is that it is becoming less and less accessible due to skyrocketing costs and wage stagnation at the time when more folks need it. Colleges need to be more accessible and turn into a viable option for students instead of something that’s immediately out of the question, or is an unattainable goal. Low income students and students of color are less likely to afford the rapid rise in the cost of higher education, and this limits opportunities for a huge number of potential college students.

To clarify, when I talk about free higher education, I mean completely free: four years of tuition-free public higher education as well as access to free food, housing, books and any other cost necessary. Right now, one-third of UMass students currently work on campus, which does not include the residential assistants and peer mentors in Residential Life or off-campus jobs. The total number of students who work at UMass is significantly higher, and many of these students rely on their jobs to stay in school. Even with those jobs, students are still accumulating debt.

If higher education were free, low-income and working class students wouldn’t have to chose between working long hours at low-wage jobs to help finance their education, which often distracts from and jeopardizes their education. Many opponents of free higher education argue that students need to “work hard” and “earn their way” for a mediocre paying job after graduation and that current college students think we’re entitled to everything. Last semester, I was working 40 hours a week – some labor unpaid – and ended up with the worst GPA I’ve ever had in my academic career. My student debt is around $45,000 right now, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to pay that off with an 11-percent interest rate. I am struggling, and many other students are struggling as well. How is that entitlement when we’re just trying to get by?

Coughlin thinks students can get their higher “education degree cheaply” in today’s society. He suggests students should “attend junior colleges for a year or two, or attend a commuter school.” But what happens when these students move to universities to complete the remainder of their four-year degrees? What I want to ask Coughlin is if he and his family always considered college as an option? How many hours does he work a week? Does he work for spending money or to pay bills? Has he ever had to decide between paying rent and textbooks? Does he struggle under the weight of loans he’ll carry for decades after graduation?

Now I ask you, Coughlin, do you understand why higher education should be free? Students across the United States are demanding it and taking direct action for this to become a reality. Higher education needs to be free so students can go to college instead of being funneled into low-wage jobs with little chance for economic mobility. Higher education needs to be free so undocumented folks, who can’t even access federal financial aid, can attend college without paying from pocket. Higher education needs to be free so students can finally become learners, and not consumers and products of a privatized system.

Erika Civitarese is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]


23 Responses to “Letter: Yes, college should be free”

  1. David Hunt 1990 on February 17th, 2016 9:16 am

    So you favor theft at the point of a gun? Because that’s what you’re advocating.

    Where do you think the money for all this free stuff is going to come from? From voluntary contributions? No, it’s coming from money that’s taken by the government with the implicit threat of force.

    You don’t even have the courage to go steal it yourself.

  2. Kris on February 17th, 2016 11:42 am

    Your personal digs at Coughlin are pretty offensive, so here goes.

    College students can get a degree for relatively cheap. I went to community college for a little while, knocked out some gen eds for peanuts. Then went to UMass for 3 years, so that already knocked my UMass bill down by a quarter. Thanks to Governor Romney and my MCAS scores, I got the Abigail Adams scholarship, which knocked it down some more. That’s what happens when these students move to universities.

    I’ll answer your questions for Coughlin from my perspective. No, we didn’t always expect to go to college. My parents didn’t, and my father expected me to pay for it myself. When I was at UMass I worked 6 different jobs over the course of 3 years. My senior year, I worked 3 of those at the same time, easily 40 hours a week. In an engineering program, not communications at that. I worked as a bartender, not at work-study, so there was no time to cram for an engineering exam while I was there. I worked to pay rent, bills, and student loan interest, and the rest went to spending money and savings. No, I never had to decide between rent and books, because I was always responsible. And no, I didn’t struggle under the weight of loans because when I was 19 I worked full time at and to community college full time, and worked throughout UMass, and paid off interest, and had enough savings to pay off the balance when I was out. Hell, now I’m working full time and took 2-4 classes a semester for 3 years, and I’m just finished with grad school!

    You are entitled because there are folks out there who dedicate their prime years from 18 to 22 by serving their country, and I get the honor to repay them by having my taxes used to pay for their educations. You are entitled because you think if something is too hard for you, it must be too hard for everyone. You serve yourself. I would be willing to bet money that you have never had to choose between rent and books, unless your rent is egregious, which it shouldn’t be because you can find plenty of places to live in Amherst for around $600 a month. You are a junior communications major who got herself into $45k worth of debt at 11% interest! That means your parents make enough money to disqualify you from getting Pell grants and Stafford loans, and you thought it would be fine to take out loans for a major that really doesn’t have a high payoff! And nice job throwing in “undocumented folks.” I think you mean illegal aliens.

    Rant over.

  3. Stephanie Higgins on February 17th, 2016 4:23 pm

    Firstly, Coughlin’s a grown man, and as such, I am quite sure that he can handle criticism of his own public piece.
    Secondly, people aren’t “illegal,” nor should they be labelled “aliens.” This is an othering and, to quote your post, “pretty offensive,” to say the very least.

    In response to your perspective: It’s wonderful that you were able to work your way through college. I commend you for your hard work, and am glad for your fortune in finances. However, I’m unsure what your goal is in your post. Do you wish for us to applaud your survival in particular? If you expect your personal account to be commended specially for your own success, I am unsure why the norm presented in your post is that of “you work hard and you graduate” as the majority.

    As I am sure you are well aware, wages as an engineer are far above the average college graduate positions. Should we all be engineers, Kris? Are all other areas of study that are not handsomely paid worthless to pursue a degree in? For example, people going into social work and the field of public health are not expecting to make a great deal of earnings. I should hope the health and very lives of those who serve their country as well as the health/lives of all people in our community would be valued.

    It is not just Erika (contributor of this piece) whose circumstances have been proven “too hard” for them. For example, many are unable to work and attend/pay for school at the same time due to disabilities, and resources for scholarships/financial aid for disability are slim to none at UMass. Beyond that, there are many, many students and graduates, who are from low-income families or are also acting independent of family funds, who struggle every day between paying off student debt and rent. I’m unsure how blaming them serves anything but your ego. If we want an educated and progressive populace, we must treat education as a right, not a privilege. I fail to see that as a frivolous or selfish mission.

  4. Kris on February 17th, 2016 6:11 pm

    ” Do you wish for us to applaud your survival in particular? ” No. I just answered every question that this bozo posed to Coughlin, as I said, in my perspective. What I expect is for people to work hard and go to college if they need to. Everyone in France gets a free college education, but France needs janitors too, and they don’t need degrees. It’s like you nutso progressives scoff at community college and blue collar work. Did I mention the term illegal alien in this comment yet? No? Illegal alien. As is someone who is an alien to this country and is here illegally.

  5. The_Chairman on February 17th, 2016 8:51 pm

    Kris’s viewpoint sums up what was called “the new spirit of the age” back in the days of the factory girls: gain wealth, forget all but self. Divide and conquer has always been the mantra of the masters of mankind…it has to be drilled into people’s heads that they should only look out for themselves, to hell with the rest of the world. That kind of society virtually destroys the prospects of all but a select elite.

  6. David Hunt 1990 on February 18th, 2016 9:31 am

    So… you’re basically saying you want something and you want someone else to pay for it.

  7. The_Chairman on February 18th, 2016 3:47 pm

    I am against the concentration of capital and political power in the hands of a tiny elite and the destruction of freedom and democracy that it invariably leads to. So yeah, I (along with the majority of the American population) want people who have accumulated wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to contribute more to the society that made them rich in the first place.

  8. David Hunt 1990 on February 18th, 2016 7:26 pm

    @The_Chairman: So you’re in favor of a system that has killed over 100 million people in the 20th century, and is founded on the human weakness of ENVY.

    Good to know.

  9. Alumni Achieved on February 18th, 2016 7:48 pm

    College must be paid by someone, and Massachusetts requires a balanced budget paid for by the tax payers. We cannot pay for free college without cuts anywhere else, it is a factual statement.

    Tax payers aren’t illegal aliens, by the way, and illegal aliens aren’t Americans. Until their homes are ready to reciprocate the same benefits they receive in the US why should we shoulder the entire burden of the world?

  10. J Hagen on February 18th, 2016 8:17 pm

    Chairman, how are you going to get money from the rich? Unfortunately, the chairman doesn’t seem to realize that the way things go in the US, is that the rich people don’t pay taxes. If you don’t believe me, check out the tax returns that have come into public review with the demands during political campaigns of very rich senators. They all have their own “charitable foundations” and other tax shelters. The people who will be hit with the cost of free higher education. will be the idiotic people who want their own college fees paid by the tax payer, oblivious to the fact that instead of paying for college for a few years, they will be paying for college for everyone for the next four decades, or more, following their graduation. Free college is just another way to stick it to the average working person. How unfair to expect someone who is working hard as a grocery store clerk, or as a certified nurses assistant, to be paying for schooling of the people who will be their bosses making a much higher salary. That’s what will happen with free higher education.

  11. The_Chairman on February 19th, 2016 2:32 pm

    @David Hunt 1990: You could say I am a libertarian socialist with views rooted in Enlightenment values and traditional conservatism. Unfortunately the term “socialist” has been rendered so meaningless by propaganda that it’s hard even to use. You seem to be under the impression that the Soviet Union and others were socialist economies. Interestingly, the Soviet Union was called “socialist” by the two major power systems at the time…the U.S. and Soviet Union, and for opposite reasons. The U.S. called it socialist in order to delude the public into thinking that is what socialism looks like…a miserable, totalitarian society. The Soviet Union called itself socialist in order to benefit from real socialism’s appeal to a large number of people in the world. True socialism has always referred to workers and communities being in control of their own lives, free from tyrannical state and corporate control. But in the Soviet Union workers and communities had no control whatsoever.

    @J Hagen: Oh man, you got me. Better just give up and let democracy and freedom erode to the point where my descendants won’t know what it is like to grow up in a semi-civilized society. It doesn’t have to be that way. There is no law of nature that says that the tiny number of people who own income-generating assets shouldn’t have to pay 30% rather than the current 15%. The system we have now was set up consciously and deliberately, but it can be changed back so that we can have the sort of programs in place in most of the industrialized world.

  12. David Hunt 1990 on February 23rd, 2016 3:11 pm

    @chairman: My translation of your comment: “REAL socialism has never been tried.” So, just how many times does the experiment where it’s attempted -whether or not it’s “real” – before people admit it’s a failure?

  13. The_Chairman on February 25th, 2016 4:07 pm

    @David Hunt 1990 Real socialism has never been attempted in a serious way, yes. How can something fail when it has never actually been tried? What was called socialism during the Mao and Stalin eras wasn’t even an experiment in socialism, real or otherwise. It was nothing more than totalitarianism. Lenin and Stalin were about as socialist as Ronald Reagan. Governments tend to describe themselves using lofty terms such as “democratic” and “socialist” in order to benefit from the real appeal of those ideas, when in fact they don’t practice those ideals at all and just want to control and repress the population.

  14. Scott Hyland on April 11th, 2016 4:22 pm

    You want “free” college? Then join the military and earn it. Your debt load is not OUR problem, buttercup.

  15. RNW1964 on April 11th, 2016 4:30 pm

    If you want me to pay for your college…Fine. Then I get to tell you what you should study.

    Science, Technology, Engineering, Math….A-OKAY

    Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Psychology, Communications….GET OUTA HERE

    You know how I paid for college? ROTC and then service to my country.

    Finally, the quicker you precious snowflakes learn that nothing in life is for free, the better off you’ll be.

  16. Kenn on April 11th, 2016 4:32 pm

    You can’t argue with liberal socialist, it’s like chasing the wind. Their way is the only way and if you don’t agree with them then you are demonized. This country is going to hell in a handbasket and unfortunately we are going to live to see the total disintergration of it.

  17. Vikon99 on April 11th, 2016 4:33 pm

    Wow, The_Chairman, your positions are so mind-bogglingly ignorant and counter to historical evidence I almost can’t process it.

    You must be trolling. If not, then you should rethink your life.

    Socialism is a political environment that rewards sloth and punishes hard work. Any system like that is self reinforcing and eventually runs out of money.

    It is counter to human nature and will always end up in the Tyranny of the Mob.

    The Romans knew it and lord knows there are ample examples of the utter corruption and failure of the Socialist system in the last century.

    These lessons have cost the death of Hundreds of Millions of Humans within living memory and you think we should try it again and “get it right this time”.

    You may want to gamble with your kids lives, please do not gamble with mine.

    Also, your Student Debt is your fault, you whining greedy slacker. Get a Job.

  18. Julia on April 11th, 2016 4:55 pm

    No college should not be totally free. Both students and colleges should have some ‘skin in the game’ if taxpayers do.

    Making college totally free would only make college increasingly expensive.
    Taxpayers will have to pick up the ever increasing tab. It would encourage ever ballooning bureaucracy and facilities.

    I would favor some financial grants on a sliding scale based academic achievement … but not the whole tab (see above).
    I would make college acceptance more rigorous from the start and the student would have to maintain a certain level of academic excellence to be eligible for any grants. This money would come after the fact … after the student has done well each semester. And there would have to be a time limit … not wandering along for 8 years trying to decide on a major.

    Of course none of this would ever implemented because it would not be ‘fair’ to those who are less academically inclined. Even if it started out as I suggested, very soon those standards would be loosened or various loopholes would be found. Therefore, I do not favor free college.

  19. Harry_ the_ Horrible on April 11th, 2016 4:57 pm


  20. Guided Missile DDG on April 11th, 2016 5:34 pm

    I was only able to attend graduate school after I served five years on two different Navy warships and made four six-month long deployments. College is free to many of those who volunteer to put on a uniform. Why does the author believe US taxpayers want to pay the freight for a bunch of students to attend four years at an over-priced university and walk away with a degree in some useless subject?

  21. Susan Sv on April 11th, 2016 6:37 pm

    I am 56 years old and still paying on my student loans. I am the one who chose to attend college and took out the loans to pay for it. I consider it immoral to ask any other citizen to pony up and pay for my higher education. I also consider it immoral for anyone else to take money from my paycheck and use it to fund someone else’s choice to go to college. I worked my way through school and most of the time I was pretty poor. After school, I continued to be poor but as the years have gone by and I have advanced in my career, the loans became less and less of an issue.

    I am do have to wonder though, if taxpayers are going to fund your education, shouldn’t we also get to help choose what school you go to and what you should major in? Seems this idea only cuts one way.

  22. Artfldgr on April 11th, 2016 8:33 pm

    I decided not to try to talk to the two socialists who never lived under socialism and one who is under the false idea its never been tried. it has, and it always goes the same way for the same reasons, which you dont agree, so its futile till you experience it. (my family is from Latvia, and my wife is Chinese)

    I know where the author is coming from, and i commend her enthusiasm, but it will be many years before she realizes that her college years are a time when she was shielded from reality and really as yet didn’t know how the world works or the causes she believes in may not be important once she is out into that real world she wants to be successful in.

    like all college students, what they know of the world and its finances and such are only beliefs, not knowledge, its a world described by selected books and papers and the last thing they are going to do is try to consider what is a right, and does a real right cost others? in a world in which commercials claim breakfast cereals have rights, its understandable that her education let he down and she has yet not learned that her rights are not valid if they require others to lose their rights.

    but to her point of paid schooling. who will pay? the rich? as the song says, tax the rich, feed the poor, till there arent any, rich no more… then what? you certainly cant be one of the rich, can you? the system your imagining certainly wont let you get rich, your going to have to spend the rest of your life paying the extra tax for about 4 million people (born each year about 10 years ago), and all the immigrants… and any adults who want to go to school… or will you be ageist? will you allow people to have more than one degree? if so, how many? will you say you get one shot, make it count? will the state pick what you take because the state needs workers in certain areas, and since they pay, dont you think they may want to avoid paying for the dumb courses that people take today that can never lead to a viable useful job? (they forget they are free to scree up, if it changes, would you still be free to screw up on your own dime? or will you have to have someone else tell you what to be so that you dont screw up the plans?)

    the reason i ask these questions is important… after all, to avoid working for a living all one has to do is stack up courses and degree after degree in many subjects, and voila, a laid back life with lots of young people around, paid for apartment, and books and food… and what else does anyone need? you just have to stay in college till your too old to work… how many you think would become perpetual students?

    its obvious the author will go out into the world and get a higher paying job, but how much would she pay in taxes? do you know what the interest rates USED to be? like when i was young? or the tax rates before the evil capitalists lowered it?

    your paying 11% on a loan in an era when the base of the loan is 2% maybe a bit more, but when i was looking at school, the base was 13%… but being a unprotected class out of bronx science, i had to be homeless on a park bench to go to continuing ed for my schooling… sis though has 5 degrees, cause they threw money at women… it helped drive up the costs… kick the men out and let the women shop for degrees. men took degrees in things that would earn them more money, women took degrees and forgot their men are not in college to earn any more and they would have to earn enough to support him, or be single, and pay for a day care, and also other things. And then there is the fact that women are fighting for free school, to go with their high paid jobs, with higher tax rates ,and even higher rates to pay for all those people to go to school.

    and you can be sure everyone would go.. your choice at 18 would be 8 years of fun with expenses paid, or work low level job make less.. not a hard stretch to realize that everyone will go. and the capable young woman with the degree paid for will pay high taxes… in this discussion, i have heard going back to the past rate of 94% for those making over 200,000 a year.

    yes, in the past before the great expansion of wealth, the tax rate was once 94% – you took home 12,000 out of it, but had to pay city and state too.

    you realize that if you had to pay for 4 million people to be students every year, every person coming over the border without permission and older folks that just want to keep learning, your going to have to figure out how all those with higher college educated wages are going to pay for all these people to have college education. 6 years is paying for 30 million people from one end of the pipeline to another… half the current population is on some form of public assistance, which also has to be paid… you know, rents, ebt, wic, free birth control, and more.. thats what we already have, so it still has to be paid for… while we have about 200 million working now, that wont be true if you can go to college and not have to work and live better than you do working.

    what if people are only taking the easy courses? what if they dont want to work hard to take a hard course, to take a high paying job that makes so little? how you going to get them to do that? and if they can all go to college, why would anyone want to pick up the garbage when they could all go to get an MBA instead?

    now before you go all funny and say we will tax the rich, you realize that you then can never be rich, and the target can get up and leave… or will you take away all our freedoms to prevent them from leaving, so you can force them to pay? what if they say, screw that, i have enough to live on and wont work for almost nothing? will you then rob them of that too? how about those old people who go back to school, will you make it illegal for more than one degree? or age limit? who will make the rules, and how many rules on rules will be needed with what form of punishments??? (who will pay for the punished?).

    i wonder how the author will handle this and not watch it devolve into one of those, socialism just hasnt really been tried places? just curious.

  23. A voice of factual reason on April 12th, 2016 2:14 am

    Dear Erika Civitarese,

    If only you would examine the public data base of remuneration for UMass bigwigs, available online, to see exactly how many people are taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars to manage and operate your education. Were they all to have their pay cuts in line with the median income of a Massachusetts resident, your education would be a fraction of its cost. The only way your UMass education will be free is when all the bigwigs in academia get clipped down to a median resident’s income.

    Please take a look at “The 100 highest-paid public employees in Mass.,” Boston Globe, February 15, 2013, as a start of a real-world education in which the facts speak, but not loudly enough.

    As to those who would say that socialism has never been correctly attempted, the facts are that government can never be socialist, because those who govern will always take more than a population’s median income. Socialism is not capitalism’s opposite. It is freedom’s opposite, because it justifies government which — just as with all political theories — will take more than its “fair share.” Such is the nature of power.

    Ms. Civitarese, please further your education, beginning with the Boston Globe article, and then think through that what you seek is something for nothing, and when a world is created in which everything is free, I as an academic, am free not to teach you. But the college of hard knocks has already been in session, and you will be tested.

    Good luck, because you will need it.

    Dr. Factual Reason

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