This writing sample was from my intro level course for my major. We spent the semester discussing ways to make education, especially college, more accessible to people without using broad strategies like the Clinton or Sanders plans from the 2016 election. The essay I wrote drew on materials we had covered throughout the semester, and connected a wide array of topics to develop a baseline comprehensive guide to creating greater accessibility.
A changing country, and a changing economy, calls for a changed perspective on how college educates the population and how the population pays for that education. The Clinton and Sanders plans for free college tuition were both created with good intentions to help more students afford education, but in doing so overlooked those who needed the most help in favor of upper class students. To help those left behind by the new economy and their families, college admissions policies have to shift their focus to the nontraditional students, veterans and older students returning to school, that need the most help balancing an education and to their college age children who look for a brighter future with the help of a college degree. Implementing a Clinton or Sanders plan would help these two groups afford college up front but would also allow higher class students who can already afford college to avoid paying for their higher education, shifting the tax burden back down to lower class families. Additionally as the upper class families’ focus shifted to the most elite public schools with free tuition, the admissions process would become even more selective. Economically challenged students who had lower quality K-12 education would struggle to receive the benefits of these public institutions. After being moved to colleges with higher acceptance rates, these families that have been hurt by the changing economy might be further disadvantaged by low quality public schools with low degree attainment rates, effectively wasting time at a college. A free college tuition plan focused on nontraditional students and low income families and increasing degree attainment at all universities could have significant benefits for those left behind in the current system, giving them a new chance to be successful in the new American economy.
Benefits of Free College
Free college tuition proposals, in theory, could be helpful for nontraditional students who struggle to pay for higher education. A study published in Inquires Journal found that workers struggled to overcome the significant financial barrier posed by higher education institutions, stopping them from returning to college. Free college tuition can remove that obstacle, and help make the burden nontraditional students face much lower. The less money a nontraditional student spends on tuition fees, the more they can use to help their family. These nontraditional students are often the ones left behind by the changing economy, and their kids get left behind with them. Free college tuition would help get the next generation of workers out the door with opportunities their parents might never have had.
The changing economy has forced a number of disadvantaged millennials with few income options to reevaluate their finances when it comes to juggling potential costs, like a house mortgage, with their pre-existing financial obligations, like outstanding student debt. Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research found that while most millennials would like to own their own house, they have less money to spend and more debt than any previous generation. Providing free college tuition for low income families would help to reallocate these payments away from student debt and into making the housing market more millennial centered. This would also open millennials up to benefits from the tax code, making their financial situation even more stable. The new economy has made home ownership, a cornerstone of the American dream, more difficult to attain, so providing these millennial students with free college tuition would empower them to reclaim that part of American tradition.
Drawbacks of Free College
The Clinton and Sanders free college proposals overlooked the group of upper class students students that haven’t been left behind by the changing economy, but have taken advantage of and profited from it. These students would already go to college even with the rising prices and would be poised to benefit more from free college plans than their lower class peers. Free college proposals act in a regressive fashion, putting the tuition strain on all citizens equally. For upper class families this would be lower than the cost of sending one student to college, but it would disproportionately hurt lower class families that have been left behind by the changing economy. This would effectively result in poorer families paying for richer students to get an education for free. Additionally these richer students, whom the data suggests receive higher quality K-12 education, would shift their focus from mid-range private schools across the country to flagship public state schools. Flooding these public schools would make the admissions process even more selective, making it harder for disadvantaged applicants that received lower quality K-12 education to get into successful colleges. Implementing the free college tuition plan as described by Sanders and Clinton would not only force lower class families to pay for upper class students, it would force these disadvantaged students to go to lower quality schools.
According to the Third Way policy think tank, many of these lower quality schools would count as “dropout factories” that wouldn’t provide quality education and support to the disadvantaged students. These schools have high dropout rates, corresponding to low degree attainment and high student debt. Student debt would become less of a barrier in a free college tuition system but the opportunity cost, defined in economics as the loss of potential gain from one choice by choosing another option, of going to a dropout factory school instead of working a job could be financially disastrous for families that need as much help as possible. By being funneled into low quality schools these students would be giving up other opportunities for income for the chance at a degree that the school may not be equipped to provide. These students are already left behind by the changing economy. It would be unfair to funnel them into schools that would just leave them further behind.
To help the Clinton and Sanders college proposals benefit those left behind by the changing economy, the focus needs to shift away from the upper class. Lower class families are the ones that need the most help, they should be the ones benefiting the most and paying the least for free college tuition. The only students that should qualify for free college tuition are those whose total family income falls below the national poverty line after adjusting for different property values and taxes. This would give disadvantaged students across the country a more even field when applying for help, and would keep the focus away from the upper class. Taxation to pay for this policy also needs to be more weighted on the richest Americans more heavily than the poorer, so that the tax burden doesn’t hurt the lower class families substantially.
It’s not enough to make colleges free, the opportunity cost would still hurt both nontraditional and lower class students that attend dropout factories. In order to craft a college proposal that helps these disadvantaged students the most, data on these schools has to be made more readily available. Creating a more transparent database on these trouble schools would help at-risk students steer clear of them for better schools. Doing so would also encourage these schools to improve their poor degree attainment levels, so that they don’t lose out on total enrollment levels. Making the data more readily available would help students avoid poor quality schools that would only hurt them in the long run.
Low income families that have been left behind by the changing economy shouldn’t be pigeonholed into only attending public universities. These students would miss out on unique opportunities that private colleges have to offer. A comprehensive college affordability policy should include extensive tax credits for students and families that attend private universities, but would benefit from free tuition at a public school. While it wouldn’t cover the total cost, it would still help ease the burden across the board and give students more affordable avenues for education. The changing economy calls for all colleges to be affordable, not just public ones.
Working families have been left behind by the economic recovery, and they need as much help as possible. Proposals for free college tuition have the potential to be that help, but the focus of them needs to shift away from upper class families and treating all schools as beneficial. A realistic college affordability plan has to both help disadvantaged students attend whatever school they want to, and understand what schools aren’t equipped to give these students a college degree. A plan that understands those factors could help students move into, or return, to the workforce with the tools needed to reconquer the American economy.
Writing such a cumulative paper was an enormous undertaking, and was extremely satisfying to finish. I’m proud of what I created with this paper, while also understanding that it was the work of an undergraduate freshman. There is plenty of room for me to grow and develop as a writer and as a thinker, and I hope that I can keep producing quality papers that try to address complex subjects.