Is Free College Tuition Possible in the US?

Is Free College Tuition Possible in the US?

Last updated on June 4th, 2019 at 03:02 pm.

It’s an interesting question. In some ways it’s a very simple one; in other ways, not so much. With a certain presidential candidate promising free college as part of his campaign and growing national student loan debt, I feel it’s a good question to ask. So, is free college tuition possible in the US?

Is Free College Tuition Possible Anywhere?

It’s not just possible – it’s already a reality. Yes, many countries offer it today. Perhaps the most obvious place to look for us Americans is to Europe. Several European countries do offer free college tuition.

If you clicked on the above link, you probably noticed the headline: “‘Free’ college in Europe isn’t really free.” Don’t worry – I’ll get to that.

I often look to Germany for their free college tuition, but Sweden, Norway, and other countries offer it, too.

But here are the important questions:

  • Why is free college tuition good?
  • Why is free college tuition bad?
  • Is free college tuition possible in the US?

Let’s dive into these questions below.

Why Is Free College Tuition Good?

The first question has the very obvious answer of (potentially) saving people money. But it refers to individuals and not necessarily to society as a whole. Just saving people some money is great, but if it doesn’t make things better at a high level, it’s a tougher sell.

Making College More Accessible

This is one of the biggest reasons that comes to mind. While I personally was able to attend an expensive college – albeit with hefty loans – this won’t be an option for everyone. What I also had were parents with a healthy credit history and who were able to sign up for parent loans.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s parents would be willing to sign onto such a loan. And if your federal loans don’t cover your education, you have to rely on private loans. Again, approval can be a problem, especially for those who can’t get a cosigner.

I can absolutely see this being a problematic situation for certain low-income families.

If college were mostly or entirely free, it would certainly lower the playing field for many – especially the economically oppressed.

Better Enrollment Rates*

I am listing this as a pro for free college but with an asterisk. Why? Because while it makes sense, real data suggests otherwise. Countries with free college like Norway, Germany, and Finland all have lower enrollment rates than the US.

While I am not exactly an expert on this nuance and haven’t done extensive research on it, I can guess the reason. I would guess a lot of this is due to cultural differences. That is, the US is essentially the culture of making money. In other countries, including the European ones mentioned, that is less true.

If I’m way off, feel free to let me know, but I imagine that is a big part of it.

Easing Student Debt

Student loans are a huge burden for a number of reasons. Not only has the national student loan debt ballooned to over $1.5 trillion, but borrowers must make payments on those loans.

In addition to the simple fact of having to make payments every month, there’s another part: interest. Depending on your interest rate and your starting principal, you could easily pay thousands in interest alone on your student loans.

I always say that interest on student loans is the worst. Unlike a mortgage on your house which at least gives you the daily benefit of a roof over your head, student loans don’t benefit us daily.

Sure, your degree may have helped you land a job. But generally, no one really cares about your degree after that. It’s for that reason that I see student loan interest as throwing money away. And it’s one of the main reasons I paid mine off as quickly as possible.

Of course, free college tuition would put all of this to rest.

Why is Free College Tuition Bad?

This is the (relatively) simple question to ask. Relative because let’s face it – there’s no such thing as simple when you’re dealing with a country of over 300 million people.

Add to that the fact that states each have their own legislation, and things get very complicated very quickly.

It’s Not Really Free

Unfortunately, it’s not. Business Insider noted this, but it’s also a very basic concept in economics:

There is no free lunch.

If college tuition were “free,” it would actually be funded by something many of us dread: taxes. No one likes when their taxes increase. But schools would still have expenses, so the money would have to come from somewhere.

As a result, indeed, our taxes would probably (definitely) increase. That’s a tough sell in the US where we tend to opt for more of an every-man-for-himself approach to basic expenses.

Those Who Don’t Go to College Still Pay

This is also a classic argument against taxes. In this case, those who won’t attend college for one reason or another would still see higher taxes. This would include tradesman/laborers or those who don’t attend college for other reasons.

And certainly, this is a valid concern. One of the reasons people become trades workers, truck drivers, etc. is to avoid the cost of college. I wouldn’t appreciate such a shift if I were one of them.

Taxes? What Taxes?

There seems to be a recurring theme of hearing about businesses offshoring funds in accounts in the Cayman Islands and the like to shelter them from taxes.

More recently though, we heard that Amazon did not pay federal taxes for 2018. Well, turns out they didn’t pay them in 2017, either.

My point in bringing this up is not to hate on Amazon. Instead, I am pondering the effectiveness of a hypothetical tax-funded education system where our largest companies are not pay said taxes.

Is Free College Tuition Possible?

Considering the above points, I think we have a long way to go. And I don’t believe it’s possible across the board in the near future. For that to happen, a massive cultural shift would be needed, and those things usually take decades. At least.

That said, I think it could be more feasible if done by state legislation. I could see states like California leading the charge. Of course, that would also leave open the possibility that only residents of that state would be eligible. Similar tuition differences for state schools already exist in the system we have now.

Is it possible? Maybe. Sort of. Probably more so on the state level.

At the end of the day though, our country would have to be willing to accept higher taxes for it to happen in every state.

It may be possible, but I’d say we have a long way to go.

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Bob Haegele

Hey there. My name is Bob and I blog about personal finance here at The Frugal Fellow. In particular, I focus on topics related to student loans, investing, credit cards, and sometimes sustainability. Interested in starting a blog? Find out how to become a blogger!

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. “Free” tuition is an interesting concept. Personally, I wouldn’t mind paying a little more taxes to have a free public college option. I agree with the benefits you bring up.

    I ended up quitting college, mainly because I didn’t know what to do and found a way to learn what I needed from Google and become a web developer. My concern with college with certain fields (like web development), is it is very hard for them to keep up with how rapidly things are changing. But this might be more of an issue with how relatively new the internet is.

  2. I think the closest thing we’re going to get is maybe free community college courses that will at least start students off with an associates for free. Which would greatly defray the cost of a college education, only having to pay for two years of school.

    I’m not against free college, though I obviously dread the taxes associated with it, but I just don’t see it being a reality in this country. Not with the way things are currently set up.

    1. I agree. Americans are just so against higher taxes that it probably can’t happen. Because yes, higher taxes do have their downsides.

      What we need is for the cost of college to stay realistic (something I talk about more in my next blog post).

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