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The Pros and Cons of Free College

During the 2016 primary season we heard a lot about the issue of free college. Should every American be able to get a bachelor’s degree at no cost? What are the pros and cons of free college? If you have student debt yourself or you have kids who plan to go to college, you probably have strong feelings one way or another. 

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2016 was a big year for the subject of free college. President Obama introduced a plan to make community college free, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders wanted to make public university tuition free for all. Not sure what the arguments for and against free college are? We’ve got you covered.

Pro 1: Free college would expand access to education. 

Okay, this one is a little obvious, but offering free college tuition would make it possible for more people to pursue higher education. The bright young people who currently skip college because they can’t afford it would have the opportunity to get a degree and get better jobs. The high cost of a degree would no longer be an obstacle. For many proponents of free college, it’s a question of fairness. They say that access to a bachelor’s degree should be accessible to everyone, especially because a B.A. or B.S. is increasingly necessary to get a good job.

Pro 2: A more educated population would have economic and social benefits for the country. 

If more Americans were living up to their potential, getting a college degree and getting better jobs, there would be positive ripple effects. Proponents of free college argue that the change would boost the country’s productivity and GDP as people sorted themselves into more suitable, higher-paying jobs. There are also social benefits to having a more educated populace and helping young people find their path.

Related Article: Countries With Free College 

Pro 3: Students would be free to follow their passions and abilities. 

The Pros and Cons of Free College

Because the current college education system leaves many students with high amounts of debt, students’ choices are constrained. They may choose a major they don’t really love simply because it promises a higher future salary. They might go to a college that’s not the best one they could get in to because it’s cheaper. They might take fewer risks later in life because of their debt. High levels of debt discourage people from starting businesses, moving to another city in search of better job opportunities or changing jobs. If you eliminate student loan debt you eliminate these problems, with benefits for students and for the overall economy.

Pro 4: Free college would help repair historic inequities. 

In the U.S., we don’t just have a problem of people being too poor to pay for college. We have a problem of generations of inequity based on discrimination. If your great-grandparents, grandparents and parents all had the opportunity to go to college you’re much more likely to have that opportunity yourself, both because of accumulated net worth across the generations and because going to college will be expected in your family. Many Americans don’t have the opportunity to go to college because their parents and grandparents and so on didn’t have the opportunity. Free college would help redress that inequity.

Con 1: The rich would get help they don’t need. 

If we made college free for everyone we would be subsidizing the rich. Families that have the money to pay for some or all of the cost of a college education might choose instead to take advantage of free college at a public institution. In effect, the government – and taxpayers – would be subsidizing the rich. Critics of free college who point to this drawback often argue that a more targeted reform subsidizing college for the poor and the middle class would make more sense. They also point to the example of Brazil, a country with free college where wealthy students reap a lot of the benefits of tuition-free education at public universities.

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Con 2: Free college would be expensive.

Some critics of free college say it would be too expensive to implement. If the idea of raising taxes is a no-go with you you’re probably not a big fan of the free college idea. Some plans, such as the one Sen. Sanders proposed, would use a combination of federal and state funds to make public colleges tuition free. But many states have been slashing their higher education budgets, so some critics question how the money would be raised to pay for free college.

Con 3: It could flood the market and lead to credential creep.

The Pros and Cons of Free College

Some critics of the free college idea argue that it would lead to a flood of graduates with mediocre credentials all competing for a limited number of jobs. Then, these critics argue, committed workers would have to pursue some kind of graduate degree to stand out from the crowd. This would cost money, as well as leading to credential creep.

Con 4: It offers no way to control what people study.

Some opponents of free college argue that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing people’s degrees in majors that aren’t likely to lead to a good job. They might be okay with subsidizing STEM degrees but not, say, theater degrees. These critics would prefer a more targeted program that would give students fewer choices.

Bottom Line

If you’re one of the millions of Americans struggling with student debt you might be sympathetic to the cause of free college tuition. If you’re skeptical of “big government” you’re probably not sold on the need for a big reform like free college tuition for all. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s helpful to understand the arguments in favor of free college and the points used against the proposal.

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Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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