College should be free. For years there has been a growing idea that students are consumers and colleges produce and sell education. There is an element of sense to this attitude since colleges have many expenses that account for the education they provide, and students have traditionally always been obligated in some way to compensate the institutions that educate and house them. However, to structure the relationship between students and faculties in a consumer model is problematic in that it reframes the expectations and obligations of both parties in a way that is counterproductive to the main purpose of a college education: education.
Moreover, as higher education has become a standard necessity for a large portion of the American population to attain the requisite values and knowledge for participating in the social and financial fabric of the developed world, it is clear that the associated costs of college are placing an undue burden on millions of people. In many cases college is free, at least for students from low-income backgrounds; however, college should be accessible to anyone who is willing and able to pursue a higher education.
College should be considered an essential human right and be provided free of charge. The consumer model of education creates confusion in what the role of a student is and what that relationship is with that of an educator. Students who feel that they are a customer may have the expectations of a customer; that is, that they are buying a product and that their degree is the product. This has a detrimental effect on how students engage with the material they are learning. This leads to the question of what it actually means to be a student, which in the context of this paper goes beyond a simple dictionary definition. If one is a student, then one needs to identify as a student, which is: someone that wants to learn.
To occupy the role of a student, one must do as a student does, which is to learn, and to not do so would make one a bad student. So a good student is one who able to conduct their actions in accordance with learning and studying well. Julie-Anne Regan explains that “the function of a student and that of a lecturer give rise to obligations, which persons fulfilling those functions ought to fulfil” (17). To add confusion to this is to add the parallel role of consumer, which is one who buys goods and services. The roles of student and consumer are not entirely compatible, as there are different considerations of what makes for a good consumer and a good student, and different dynamics in consumer/seller and student/educator relationships.
To attain the role of a student in college, one must be accepted by means of ability and financial resources. The traditional college student is someone who has just graduated from high school and is under the age of 24, an age group which does not typically have financial independence or experience (Geddes, et al. 357). This lack of independent finances requires financial assistance from families, lending institutions, government assistance, or a combination of the three. The financial burden is necessary if a student is to complete their education, which in turn is required to be accepted into the roles of most professions, which is required for any complex society to function. What is created by these circumstances is a large population that is in debt for much of their lives, simply to fill the various roles that are required by society.
In contrast to the central thesis of this paper, that college should be a civil right, there is the idea that college is indeed a service provided by a business entity, and those that wish to attain the standard of living that is usually afforded by a college education must pay for it. The debt that is created from the pursuit of higher education ensures that former students remain beholden to society and this obligation is beneficial on a moral level. The many people and institutions involved in the formation of a student’s education exist only because they have the resources to exist, and to benefit from the efforts of others free of charge or obligation is inequitable. Justin Wolfers believes that forgiving the debt currently owed by college graduates is erroneous.
It would essentially be giving money away to people that are not in need of it and are less likely to contribute it back to the economy through spending, as their needs are already met. Former students who complain about large debts simply do not wish to be in debt because it is inconvenient (Wolfers 228), not because they cannot afford it; their new professions certainly allow for a higher standard of living concurrently with their new financial obligations. While this argument doesn’t directly address the issue of higher education being a social right and necessity, it does touch on the attitude that it is something that isn’t intrinsically deserved.
Wolfers’ point is fair for the system that is currently in place: why should society pay for the cost of graduates’ past education? A debt that is forgiven is an asset that a financial institution must write off as an expense, which in turn results in fewer taxes owed. Still, in spite of this, there may indeed need to be losses to adjust higher education industry practices. However, Wolfers point falters because his scope is too narrow. If the debt were to be assumed or forgiven by the state, then that principle could also be applied to future college students.
To advocate for tuition-free colleges may have certain obstacles that are complicated to justify, the primary one being to whom does the fiscal responsibility lay. Taxes should be considered because that is ultimately the way that ‘society’ is able to pay for anything collectively. Progressive tax brackets could ensure that those who benefit most from their education would be taxed more than those of more meager means. K – 12 public schooling is locally taxed by district, and the size of the district determines who goes to what school. Universities tend to be larger, therefore the district sizes should be statewide, but also be malleable and based on what the overall demand from students is and which area is most able to supply that educational need.
This may take some choice out of the universities prospective students may apply for, but this is really already the case with non-resident tuition costs, and many students tend to attend colleges that are not too far from home (this is not considering prestigious private universities). After successfully completing undergraduate degrees, students should then be compelled to volunteering some of their time to public service relevant to their new degree.
So much energy is put into educating K – 12 because society needs its population to have the knowledge, skills, and values endowed by the institutions created to provide them. It is considered so essential that it is a crime to not have a child educated in this manner, either publicly or in private, or some equivalent. The sheer amount of students continuing their education beyond high school and having to go into debt for it should be sufficient evidence that educational needs have extended beyond K – 12. College is ideally more than just a service. The fact that lending institutions are able to exploit this need is ominous. Of course, the fault is not entirely on lending institutions, as colleges raise tuition fees and other related expenses as loans are more widely demanded (Kelly).
Secretary of Education Bill Bennett argued that “If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase. In 1978, subsidies became available to a greatly expanded number of students. In 1980, college tuitions began rising year after year at a rate that exceeded inflation. Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible” (New York Times). While that was opined in the 1980s, the trend has continued to this day and is still creating an inflationary financial environment where students are the victims.
A college education should be paid for by society, not the individual. While it is true that the individual is the primary benefactor of their own education, the benefits that society gets from having a large population of educated individuals is invaluable. The current system of taking on debt for the chance of repayment contingent on attaining a degree and using that degree for future earnings is clearly not sustainable. Public funding would mitigate costs because then society could act as a collective bargaining unit to keep the cost of education reasonable, and would result in greater access to education with fewer costs, and less debt saddled on the student. The combined effect of supporting differing educational focuses on millions of people ensures that a society can solve new problems as they arise. This should be considered an essential social function, and society’s valuation of that should be manifested in an increased fiscal stake in each individual.