The 4 Lenses of College Debt: Is Free College Worth It?

Updated: Feb 25

This post is a special article, Lenses: In-Depth Analysis. Read and learn about this type of non-traditional article!


This article is a part of a series about higher education:

The 4 Lenses of College Value: Is Higher Education a Right?

The 4 Lenses of College Debt: Is Free College Worth It



Current Situation

Colleges have been essential for centuries now as they have become key drivers in our economies and societies. It's no wonder why college tuition has become a hot topic in today's atmosphere.


Many parents, educators, and politicians have all favored the importance of education in our fast-paced world. So much so that the current borrower debt in the United States currently stands at $1.7 trillion – doubling from the 2012 total of $1.0 trillion (1). This burden weighs on those who have graduated and the rest of the American economy.

The question becomes, does the benefit outweigh the cost?


In the political arena, we have seen liberals and moderates push for a free college solution. Starting during the 2016 presidential election season, Bernie Sanders proposed the idea. At first sight, this plan seemed utterly unreasonable.


However, the nuances that the senator introduced brought it closer to a possibility. When we look at American citizens today, we notice dedicated support from democrats. On the other side of the aisle, we notice and split support from republicans based on age and educational background (2). And it has now reached the desk of the future president, Joe Biden.


We will look at what this debate seems like from all angles, well, all that we can see. As we'll find, we can tackle the problem at different depths from a pure economic standing to a standpoint cemented in the importance of educated citizenship.


Reframing: Redefining Free

As we step into the debate, we first want to look at the word "free." There is a sense of duality in this concept, and as we often associate it with money, it seems clear what it means. So, let's expand on this idea.


Does the Free College Plan Make College Free?

The quickest answer here is no. The plan that Biden and Sanders believe in only makes it free for the student (or parent) who's paying the cost of tuition and doesn't address the rising prices. This factor is what many conservatives use in opposition to the idea. As we look at the sharp increase over the past few decades, this is no small concern to have.


We find that the plan would disperse the burden of costly education on the national and state tax bases at 67% and 33%, respectively.


In 2016, when Sanders first proposed the College Act for All, the annual budget for college subsidies was $91 billion, which supported three goals (4):


  1. $37 Billion: Tuition tax breaks disproportionately paid wealthier families who have the option to use the itemized deductions.

  2. $41 Billion: Low Income and Veteran help come in the form of aid like Pell Grants.

  3. $13 Billion: Subsidized interest payments that aid any student that has a subsidized federal loan.

Looking at the $79 billion costs of the free-college plan, it seems like it could be a practical economic choice as it gives the chance to do two things:

  1. More directly helps underprivileged borrowers.

  2. Add only a proportional amount to the tax-load for education spending.

Keep in mind that this only covers the tuition itself, not other expensive factors like room and board, supplies, and various fees. Covering tuition costs (average in-state tuition of $9,970) only covers a proportion of the average total cost of $25,290. A ratio of $25,620 to $40,940 for out-of-state students (5).


These costs are often unavoidable. And many students who traditionally step out of high school look for the college experience to set off on their own in a new state.


Though we can solve tuition, much of the bill is still open to the student and parent, and 'free' college becomes tuition reduced' college - only affecting low-income students at public universities.


Freedom of Barrier

When you look at the word 'free,' what comes to mind? For many, it is the economic definition 'free of charge.' The problem with quantifying this term is that it loses much of its meaning.


In 1935, while describing the first public school in America in her research The Tercentenary of the Boston Public Latin School, Pauline Holmes M.A. looks at it through a new lens (6):


"A domestic, public institution not restricted to any class of children. Secondary education was declared at once, not to be the privilege of any aristocratic class; the governor's son and the poor man's son were, in this sense, both , "free" to enter school."

Supplying a free path through college is more than just that. It gives disadvantaged students the ability to find an unbarred path to prosperity—the American Dream (7).

This viewpoint opens the second side of the debate—an approach of societal betterment and citizenship. However, the struggle with this is that our country has a long battle in defining what this freedom includes.


Reframing: Freedom of Speech and Democracy

A direct relationship has long linked democracy and education in an unbreakable bond.


Through meaningful, we can't get completely lost in the economic side of what college means. There is an excellent opportunity to develop and become a better democratic citizen when we attend college.


Opportunities for Growth

Coming from a single-mother house in a small town in upstate New York, I had limited opportunities throughout my younger years. I saw little in terms of diversity in thought, action, or employment, and my first college major was automotive technology. As I made my way through my core electives, I itched for more kinds of knowledge that I never really seen in high school.


When I transferred into business administration, I explored many new things on track for a job in accounting. And so, in courses like my psych 101 class, I made psychology my minor.


These chained events, falling like dominoes one after another, had pushed me to see so many things I would have never even thought possible when I was in high school. College didn't just teach me information; it gave me entire ways of seeing the world both literally and metaphorically.


I got to see the Swiss Alps and navigated the western shores of Ireland on a semester abroad. And in the classroom, I learned concepts like the psychology of learning and development that pushed me ever closer to who I am today.


I know, personally, that college offers the opportunity to see the world uniquely and opens students to many different possibilities. These changes can affect our direction in life forever—changes that help us live the lives we want to live.


But are there other ways we can do this outside of college?


Openness to Thought

The foundation of democracy is understanding opposing viewpoints to make quality decisions in leadership but we rarely teach anything beyond the test in primary and secondary school. Still, education is what you make it, and higher education can be a critical stepping stone in making better decisions as citizens.


We have long asserted that secondary education is a priority for students across the country. Now we have to wonder if we need another step in creating a genuinely united citizenry.


"In our democracy, every young person should have an equal opportunity to get a higher education, regardless of his station in life or financial means." John F. Kennedy.

Reframing: College Obsession

In one of his Ted Talks, Sir Ken Robinson quotes that there is "an obsession in America with people going to college. The whole K-12 education system pushes very hard in that direction." In an interview with Carl O'Brien of the Irish Times, he expanded on the idea (8).


"The problem with that preoccupation of a certain style of education is that it marginalizes a great many of the other abilities and talents that kids have, and that they'll need now and in the future."


Students and children come in all packages, and this world needs a diverse group of individuals to support economies and societal function. So, why do we use a cookie-cutter mold in our public schools?


Though I found my way through college-level academia, it has never fit me, and the same goes for other students. From the pressures of the SAT's to the spirit breaking weeks of finals and midterms, we cut ourselves from so much value.


We have heavily prioritized higher education for too long while pushing all kids through a similar track of high-pressure test environments. And when schools must cut funding, the arts and extracurricular programs are often the first ones to go. This creates a scenario where the things that many students are the most interested in are the first to go.


Though the gates to college should be wide open, they shouldn't be the only ones we can pass through. With students' current dissatisfaction rate saying their college debt wasn't worth it at 52%, we must look at alternative ways to cultivate our students and children (1).


Reframing: Economic Trends

Compared to the historical rise of 3% a year, tuition costs have seen a sharp increase over the past decade (8). And when we see how only 55% of students graduate "on-time" (within the traditional four-year schedule), this increase takes on added burdens (10).


Our college obsession has become it's very own barrier to making college affordable! When we consider the basic economic principle of supply and demand, we realize that our interest in higher education is one reason for soaring prices over the past few decades. Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, notes this concept.


The basic principle of supply and demand in economics guides individuals and systems. In its simplest terms, it points to the fact that as demand rises, supply will increase to match it, which pushes for a price increase to meet equilibrium. Though there are other factors at play, it's something that we can't ignore.


Staffing is a sizable portion of university budgets, and the high demand for college adds yet another variable. On top of the natural increase in salaries, more college demand means larger classes. Larger classes mean more work. And more work means a larger salary demand for education professionals (11).


Another concept that Vedder dives into is the possibility of the Bennett Hypothesis making financial aid less efficient. With it, he explains the fact that for every new dollar in financial aid, tuition has increased by 65 cents. He describes this as:


"Knowing that students will get the financial aid money, the university raises fees and takes advantage to capture that themselves,"(11).

As we take in this economic reality, we realize a fragility in only making college free for borrowers. Aiming for long-term validity makes the fact of rising costs hard to ignore. So, should we remove the economic barrier, or should we look deeper into the problem?


Points of Cooperation

Looking at higher education costs, we have several points to address before we find long-term cooperation between conservatives and liberals. The first is developing our understanding of our college obsession—a topic we will dive into in a future article.


Like many systems and institutions, fixing one problem does not always bring a solution to the root cause. As a society, we need to understand student diversity complexities and incorporate different learning methods in our current education system.


By doing this, we can lessen the economic trends that we have noticed over the past few decades and build upon our understanding of a successful student.

As many have hard-fought disagreements with higher education, we have to ask ourselves—is it because they don't believe in the value of education or because they speak for the many marginalized students in our public-school systems?


Road to Implementation

The road to implementation, like with any problem, will be a difficult one to follow. Intertwining opposing points of view is and will never be straightforward. But we have found some stops along the way.



Final Thoughts

As with all our in-depth analyses, our job is not to decide for you, but to bring you a wide range of information to make your mind about the problem. Though we firmly believe that addressing tuition costs and economic barriers is essential (it's our job too!), we would love to hear what you have to say.


Community Engagement Questions

Did we miss anything?

What's your view on America's college obsession?

What other college cost problems should we solve?

Can the free college plans be a long-term solution?

We look to answer these questions and more down the line.


Special Thanks

1. ‌College Dropout Rate. (2020, October 29). Student Loan Debt by Year [2020]: Average per Student + Total. Education Data. https://educationdata.org/average-student-loan-debt-by-year


2. Hartig, H. (2020, February 21). Democrats overwhelmingly favor free college tuition, while Republicans are divided by age, education. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/21/democrats-overwhelmingly-favor-free-college-tuition-while-republicans-are-divided-by-age-education/


3. Cilluffo, A. (2019, August 13). 5 facts about student loans. Pew Research Center; Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/13/facts-about-student-loans/


4. Tuition-Free College Could Cost Less Than You Think (Published, 2019). (2020). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/business/tuition-free-college.html#:~:text=But%20free%20college%20isn’t,need%20to%20foot%20the%20bill


5. Song, J. (2018, September 12). Average Cost of College in America. ValuePenguin; ValuePenguin. https://www.valuepenguin.com/student-loans/average-cost-of-college#:~:text=Our%20researchers%20found%20that%20the,fees%2C%20and%20room%20and%20board. ‌


6. A tercentenary history of the Boston Public Latin School, 1635-1935, by Pauline Holmes. (2019). HathiTrust. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b112578&view=1up&seq=11


7. NASFAA | Report: Low-Income Students Cannot Afford 95 Percent of Colleges. (2020). Nasfaa.org. https://www.nasfaa.org/news-item/11623/Report_Low-Income_Students_Cannot_Afford_95_Percent_of_Colleges


8. O'Brien, C. (2018, February 23). Parents warned of obsession with sending children to university. The Irish Times; The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/parents-warned-of-obsession-with-sending-children-to-university-1.3402361


9. Dickler, J. (2019, October 24). Why college tuition keeps rising. CNBC; CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/24/why-college-tuition-keeps-rising.html


10. Why Is College Tuition Rising So Fast? (2019). Champlain.Edu. https://online.champlain.edu/blog/why-is-college-tuition-rising


11. Hoffower, H. (2019, June 26). Why is college so expensive? Experts explain student-loan debt factors - Business Insider. Business Insider; Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-is-college-so-expensive-2018-4







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