Many states and cities offer students some help in covering college costs, notably New York state, which last year initiated a program allowing students in lower- and middle-class families who live in the state to enroll in its two-year and four-year public colleges tuition-free.
Advocates of a nationwide program of free colleges say that giving everyone access to higher education not only would help individuals succeed and contribute to society but also would produce a better-qualified workforce for the evolving economy. But critics of the idea point to the burden it would place on taxpayers and question whether the goal of graduating more people from college is worth the investment.
This is unnecessary, expensive and inefficient. America has a comprehensive infrastructure of colleges and universities. These institutions aren’t perfect, but they are capable of preparing people for success in a rapidly changing economy. The problem is America’s antiquated financial-aid system, which hasn’t been significantly changed in the past half-century.
It’s time for a new approach. America became great in part because it decided to offer elementary and secondary school to the masses, propelling innovation and economic growth. It simply needs to remember and reinvest in that smart decision, this time including public higher education.
States should aim for tuition-free funding models for everyone, supplemented by means-tested programs to ensure that all students have access to food, housing and the transportation they need to succeed. But states can’t do this on their own. We need a commitment from the federal government to provide whatever additional funding is necessary to make this work.
Of course the cost of tuition-free higher education will be borne by taxpayers. But this is the kind of investment Americans are familiar with—we all understand that public libraries are free, as are public roads and fire departments, and K-12 schools, and we share the cost of those public services. Higher education, like those, is an investment that would benefit us all. When people cannot afford education, we all suffer, as they are far less likely to be employed, paying taxes, sending their children to school and contributing to our communities in other ways.
Giving more people the opportunity to earn a college degree won’t produce an army of overqualified workers, as some argue. Employers today are demanding a college education because the nature of work has changed. They want workers with up-to-date technical expertise; habits of mind that include analytical thinking, problem solving and cooperative behavior; a strong work ethic and a commitment to lifelong learning.
The idea that degrees are becoming less valuable is also mistaken. The breadth of people obtaining degrees has expanded—more people from low-income families, people of color and women are getting them. These people aren’t treated the same in the labor market as white men are—their wages tend to be lower. That doesn’t mean education is any less valuable. In fact, it means higher education is becoming less about exclusion and more about social mobility than ever before.
As for the threat that some people see to the excellence of U.S. higher education: “Excellent” institutions that are inaccessible are nothing but elitist.
It is perfectly possible to be both accessible and excellent. But if the goal is to greatly reduce the stock of educated labor in the U.S. and turn back the clock to a time when only the privileged got ahead in life, eliminating all government aid for higher education—as some suggest would be ideal—seems like a fine way to do that, but it wouldn’t be good for the country’s economic future.