“Free College” Why it’s such a bad idea

By Dr. Brad Johnson
Guest Column to the Eagle

There is little question in my mind that a large majority of our high school graduates should attend some kind of post-high school education.

That might be a university, community college or trade school but for the purposes of this post I will simply call it “college.”

If I’m right, then we have a problem – not enough of our young people are attending college, and many who do attend rack up large student debt and leave without a degree or professional certificate.

So far, my argument fits the current national narrative and the stated federal goal of universal college attendance.

But here is where I differ sharply with current policy goals; I do NOT believe the problem is caused by the fact that students must pay tuition.

In fact, I am convinced that students who pay the bill out of their own pocket actually get more out of their education, value it more, make wiser choices about which college to attend, and end up ahead of their peers who had college paid by others.

Here are six reasons (some of which overlap) why giving college away is a bad idea:

Nothing is free.  You knew this was coming, but we must start here.  The headline “free college” misleads and distracts from the truth that there is considerable cost involved in providing quality formal education.

This confusion actually harms the person the policy intends to help – the student – as we shall see shortly.

Price implies value.  If, as President Obama has suggested, the nation were to make community college education free, then the public will conclude community college education is inferior to university education.

There is substantial and growing evidence that community college education is every bit as valuable and rigorous as that found at the majority of public and private universities.

However, the free price tag will reinforce in the mind of the public that the educational opportunities are inferior, and that is NOT a good message for community colleges, students or their families.

Misguided solution to a real problem.  The real reason many high school graduates do not attend, and others do not persist in college is tied to the fact that students coming through “free” public education have failed to develop an interest in learning.

They are “disengaged,” often seeing little intrinsic value in the education they are offered.  Vincent Tinto and other researchers made this point more than a decade ago – students who sense value in their educational experience will overcome incredible challenges to succeed, while others lacking that sense will find any excuse to drop out.

This “Solution” would make the problem worse.  I do not mean students will stop going to college simply because it becomes free.  In all likelihood larger numbers of students will enroll.

However, they will be less engaged in learning, less inclined to stay up late studying and work hard to master difficult subjects.

If in the back of their minds this education is “owed” to them or is not worth any personal financial investment on their part, the final result will be poorer educational outcomes.

Lets be clear, the challenge for college professors is NOT primarily that their students are paying tuition.  It is that students already underestimate the value of what is offered to them in their courses.

A past friend who worked with me as a psychology professor put it this way, “A college education is one of the few things in life where people (students) work hard to avoid getting what they paid for.”  If college becomes free, then this challenge will only worsen.

Money can’t buy you love. Paying the bill for students doesn’t strengthen their character or resilience.  But it does rob them of the sense of achievement and accomplishment.  Just consider these two statements:  “Uncle Sam paid for my college”  -or-  “I worked my way through college”

They produce very different senses of accomplishment, ownership, maturity, and so on.  Even a generation ago when returning GIs went to college, the statement “I’m going to college on the GI bill” pointed to their military service and placed the college price tag in the context of self-sacrifice.

I am NOT saying that when students pay tuition somehow all the challenges are magically gone.  But as a broad public policy “free college” applies incentives in the wrong places and sends the wrong message

The one who pays makes the rules.  This is probably the biggest hidden reason why “free college” is such a bad idea.

If someone else is paying your bill, then what is their role in your education?  Federal intrusion into higher education is at an all-time high right now.

Many of the bad seeds of centralized planning are being planted now, and will produce their bad fruit down the road (this might be a future blog?)

Students and parents need to ask whether the government’s purposes in their education might not always align with their own interests.  Government wants “efficiency” while students should want “growth, opportunity, and an expanded understanding of the world in which they live.”

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