Free Education: Is it in Our Future?

For most voters, especially newer ones, education is one of the most important issues facing the nation. In recent years, more candidates have floated the idea of either offering free or discounted college tuition. Student loan debt is incredibly high, with students collectively owing over $1.3 trillion dollars.

Many college graduates end up dropping out before they finish getting a degree because they're too far in debt to keep going. Education experts often have differing opinions of what the college landscape is going to look like in the future, but at the very least, they agree that change is on the horizon. Some of the changes are already beginning to take place. Here's how.

A Digital Shift

There's already been some hints of what free education may look like in the future through online classes. Online colleges are significantly less expensive than traditional colleges. One of the biggest advantages online courses have over traditional colleges is more freedom in determining your schedule. This is especially important for students who work or take care of a family member during the day. Non-traditional students like these would otherwise be unable to get an education. It has become so popular that many traditional universities offer an online school in addition to usual classroom courses.

While there are many benefits to attending online colleges, especially in terms of tuition, some undeniable issues exist. Critics of online courses argue online classes are less effective because students do not have the same level of one-on-one access to their professor. Online professors typically have significantly larger class sizes because there are fewer restrictions on how many students can enroll. Additionally, teachers can host more online classes each day.

This is technically a fair criticism of online schools, but it is also a dated view. Some colleges did initially struggle with creating an online curriculum, but the process has been continually refined, ensuring students have access to both an affordable and a quality education.

Financial Aid for Online Colleges

Another dated criticism about online colleges has to do with the costs. On paper, the classes might appear cheaper, but critics argue when you factor in government grants and scholarships available at traditional colleges, the prices are similar. In 2020, most forms of financial aid are available whether you are attending school in-person or online.

The bigger consideration is whether you will attend school part or full-time. This applies whether you apply for an online school or a traditional college. Many college scholarships, grants or other forms of financial aid are only available if you meet specific credit-hour requirements. In some cases, such as with the Pell Grant, this requirement is determined by the federal government. If the grant is offered by the college, the university decides the requirements.

Whether you go to trade or vocational school may also change what kind of grants are available. To get the best financial aid, students often must enroll as full-time. However, with the flexibility offered through online classes, it is much easier for students to attend school full-time while also maintaining other responsibilities.

Who pays for free education?

Free college sounds great on paper, but even with online colleges, there are still many costs in addition to tuition. Universities must be able to pay for teachers and the necessary technology to host online courses. Critics are quick to point out free college is technically impossible, since even students who are not paying for tuition, must pay in some way to keep the schools running.

The exact number varies, but many financial experts place the cost of "free" college around $75 to $85 billion a year. While this may seem expensive, it is important to consider how much the government currently spends on financial aid. In 2016, the federal government spent over $40 billion in aid solely for low-income students and veterans. If tuition were no longer an issue, this funding could be reallocated into paying for free college education. While this helps offset the costs, it is important to note the cost of maintaining free education is also going to increase beyond the initial projections. This is one of the reasons financial experts have a hard time agreeing on whether free college is a realistic goal.

There are some examples of free college working in limited forms. Some states, such as New York, offer free tuition for trade school or other two-year programs. While this is certainly not the same as providing free tuition for all types of colleges across the United States, it at least sets a groundwork for how the government could transition into providing free college.

Easier Application

When discussing free education, the conversation is primarily dominated by the need to eliminate student debt. For many students, this is the largest benefit to making college free, but it is not the only one. With the current system of financial aid, it is possible for many low-income students to attend college for free if they apply for the right grants or scholarships. However, applying for a single grant can be a difficult process, and most low-income students need multiple grants and scholarships to even consider going to college.

The Economic Argument

Some experts believe offering free education has positive benefits for the economy. Students who graduate would no longer be burdened by enormous student loans, which normally keeps them from making large purchases. This means students can contribute to the economy much quicker, which is not only beneficial for the students, but also businesses.

Some negative economic impacts must also be considered. If colleges are made tuition free, the number of students attending private universities significantly decreases. Without funding, these schools will not be able to employ professors and other staff members. Many private universities also run community programs, funded by the cost of tuition. With fewer students attending, these programs may also be abandoned. In some cases, these programs include smaller trade schools, which are an important resource for students unable to attend college full-time.

With so many factors to consider, it is hard to accurately gauge whether free education is viable for the future. At the very least, just having the conversation is causing significant changes in college funding. Even if free college is not in the future, there is a real likelihood financial aid will change to make attending college a viable option for more students.

Sources
US News | NY Times | Forbes | US News