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Free College – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Free college programs come in different forms but generally refer to the government picking up the tab for tuition costs, while students pay for other expenses such as room and board. [50] At least 38 states have existing or proposed variations of free college programs. [48]

Tuition at public four-year institutions more than doubled over the past thirty years, and the average student loan debt more than doubled from the 1990s to the 2010s, according to the US Department of Education. [29] There are currently around 17 million students in undergraduate programs in the United States. [49] As the 2020 presidential election heats up, many candidates are bringing the issue of free college into the national spotlight. [47]

Is tuition-free college an economy-boosting solution to unequal college access and sky-high college debts? Or is tuition-free college a taxpayer burden that will still result in high student debt and drop-out rates? The pros and cons of the tuition-free college debate are detailed below.

Should Public College Be Tuition-Free?



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Pro 1

Tuition-free college will help decrease crippling student debt. If tuition is free, students will take on signi�cantly fewer student loans. Student loan debt in the United States exceeds $1.5 trillion. 44.2 million Americans have student loan debt, and 10.7% of those borrowers are in default. [1][2] The average 2016 graduate owed $37,172 in college loans. [2]

Student loan debt has risen 130% since 2008, and public college costs have risen 213% between 1987 and 2017. [1][4] Students are coming out of college already buried under a mountain of debt before they have a chance to start their careers. [5]

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), an advocate for free college, stated, “It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That shortsighted path to the future must end.” [6]

Con 1

Tuition-free college is not free college and students will still have large debts. Tuition is only one expense college students have to pay and accounts for 39.5% of total average college costs. [22]

On average, in-state tuition at a public college costs $10,230 for each year. Fees, room, and board for on-campus housing are another $11,140. [23] Books and supplies are another $1,240, transportation adds $1,160, and other expenses cost another $2,120. Without tuition, college still costs an average of $15,660 per year. [22]

Tuition accounts for just one-�fth of the average community college student’s budget, which runs $17,930 annually on average. [22]

Sweden has free college and yet students in that country had an average of $19,000 in student debt for living costs and other expenses in 2013, compared to the $24,800 in debt US college students had the same year. [24][1]

Pro 2

The US economy and society has bene�ted from

Con 2

Taxpayers would spend billions to subsidize tuition,



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tuition-free college in the past. Nearly half of all college students in 1947 were military veterans, thanks to President Roosevelt signing the GI Bill in 1944 to ensure military servicemembers, veterans, and their dependents could attend college tuition-free. The GI Bill allowed 2.2 million veterans to earn a college education, and another 5.6 million to receive vocational training, all of which helped expand the middle class. [7][8][9] An estimated 40% of those veterans would not have been able to attend college otherwise. GI Bill recipients generated an extra $35.6 billion over 35 years and an extra $12.8 billion in tax revenue, resulting in a return of $6.90 for every dollar spent. [10]

The bene�ciaries of the free tuition contributed to the economy by buying cars and homes, and getting jobs after college, while not being burdened by college debt. They contributed to society with higher levels of volunteering, voting, and charitable giving. [11]

The 1944 GI Bill paid for the educations of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants, 450,000 engineers, three Supreme Court Justices (Rehnquist, Stevens, and White), three presidents (Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush), many congressmen, at least one Secretary of State, 14 Nobel Prize winners, at least 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, many entertainers (including Johnny Cash,

while other college costs remained high. The estimated cost of Bernie Sanders’ free college program is $47 billion per year, and has states paying 33% of the cost, or $15.5 billion. [25] According to David H. Feldman, PhD, and Robert B. Archibald, PhD, both Professors of Economics at William & Mary College, “This will require tax increases, or it will force states to move existing resources into higher education and away from other state priorities like health care, prisons, roads and K-12 education.” [26]

According to a 2016 Campaign for Free College report, states could lose between $77 million (Wyoming) and $5 billion (California) in tuition revenue from their state colleges and universities, and have to pay an additional $15,000 (Wyoming) to $55 million (New York) to subsidize a tuition-free plan. [27]

Neal McCluskey, PhD, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, calculated that free college funded by tax dollars would cost every adult taxpayer $1,360 a year, or $77,500 over a lifetime. “Why should people who want to go to college get it paid for in part by people who pursue on-the-job training or other forms of noncollege education?,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, adding, “Indeed, why should anyone get a degree to increase their lifetime earnings on the backs of taxpayers?” [28]

College costs have increased for of a number of reasons unrelated to tuition,



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Paul Newman, and Clint Eastwood), and many more. [8][12][13]

During the post-World War II era, the United States ranked �rst in the world for college graduates, compared to tenth today. [14]

including fancy dorms, amenities like lazy rivers and climbing walls, student services (such as healthcare), athletics, increases in administrative personnel, and cuts in state funding. [31][32][33][46]

Pro 3

Everyone deserves the opportunity to get a college education. Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, stated, “A dramatic increase in the number of Americans with college credentials is absolutely essential for our economic, social and cultural development as a country.” [15]

The rapid rise of tuition has limited access to higher education, which is essential in today’s workforce: three- quarters of the fastest-growing occupations now call for education beyond high school, according to the US Department of Education. [29] College graduates earn $570,000 more than a high school graduate over a lifetime, on average, and they have lower unemployment rates. [16] [17] Students from low- and moderate- income families are unable to afford as many as 95% of American colleges. [30]

Max Page, PhD, Professor of Architecture, and Dan Clawson, PhD, Professor of Sociology, both at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,

Con 3

Tuition-free college will decrease completion rates, leaving students without the bene�ts of a full college education and degree. Jack A. Chambless, Economics Professor at Valencia College, said that with a free college program, “Potentially millions of young people who have no business attending college would waste their time — and taxpayer dollars — seeking degrees they will not obtain… Free tuition would dupe young people into a sense of belonging, only to �nd that their work ethic, intelligence and aptitude are not up to the rigors of advanced education.” [34]

Under California’s community college fee waiver program, over 50% of the state’s community college students attended for free (before a 2017 program change), but only 6% of all California community college students completed a career technical program and fewer than 10% completed a two- year degree in six years. [35]

Vince Norton, Managing Partner at



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stated: “A century ago high school was becoming a necessity, not a luxury; today the same is happening to college. If college is essential for building a career and being a full participant in our democracy as high school once was, shouldn’t it be free, paid for by public dollars, and treated as a right of all members of our country?” [21]

Norton Norris, a campus marketing company, stated, “Students will enroll at a ‘free college’ and borrow money for the cost of attendance. Then, they will drop out and have a student loan – but no skills. Brilliant.” [36]

College tuition is set by state policy or by each individual institution. Some colleges, especially federal land grant schools, had free tuition beginning in the 1860s. And some states had tuition-free policies at state colleges and universities for in-state students well into the twentieth century. According to Ronald Gordon Ehrenberg, PhD, Professor at Cornell University, “Public colleges and universities were often free at their founding in the United States, but over time, as public support was reduced or not increased su�ciently to compensate for their growth in students and costs (faculty and staff salaries, utilities etc.), they moved �rst to a low tuition and eventually higher tuition policy.” [37]

About 2.9% of American 18- to 24-year olds went to college for the 1909-1910 school year, compared to 41.2% for the 2016-2017 school year. [ 38][39]

Federally, free college programs have been in effect for military personnel since the 1944 GI Bill. [7][8][ 9] At least 26 other countries have free or nearly free college tuition: Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Kenya, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, Panama, Poland, Scotland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and Uruguay. [42][43][ 44]

According to a Sep. 2017 poll, 63% of Americans support making public colleges and universities tuition-free. [35][45]


1. Michelle Singletary, “U.S. Student Loan Debt Reaches a Staggering $1.53 Trillion,” washingtonpost.com, Oct. 3, 2018

2. Zack Friedman, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: A $1.5 Trillion Crisis,” forbes.com, June 13, 2018



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3. Institute of Education Science, “Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics,” nces.gov (accessed Mar. 8, 2019)

4. Emmie Martin, “Here’s How Much More Expensive It Is for You to Go to College Than It Was for Your Parents,” cnbc.com, Nov. 29, 2017

5. Dan Caplinger, “Rising Cost of College Creating a Financial Hole for Parents, Students: Foolish Take,” usatoday.com, June 9, 2018

6. Harlan Green, “What Happened to Tuition-Free College?,” hu�ngtonpost.com, June 1, 2016

7. History Channel, “G.I. Bill,” history.com, Aug. 21, 2018

8. American RadioWorks, “The History of the GI Bill,” americanradioworks.org, Sep. 3, 2015

9. Suzanne Mettler, “How the GI Bill Built the Middle Class and Enhanced Democracy,” scholars.org, Jan. 1, 2012

10. Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, “GI Bill of Rights: A Pro�table Investment for the United States,” djdinstitute.org (accessed Mar. 7, 2019)

11. Dennis W. Johnson, The Laws That Shaped America: Fifteen Acts of Congress and Their Lasting Impact, 2009

12. Andrew Glass, “FDR Signs GI Bill, June 22, 1944,” politico.com, June 22, 2017

13. Megan Slack, “By the Numbers: 3,” obamawhitehouse.archives.gov, Apr. 27, 2012

14. Arne Duncan and John Bridgeland, “Free College for All Will Power 21st-Century Economy and Empower Our Democracy,” brookings.edu, Sep. 17, 2018

15. Claudio Sanchez, “Should Everyone Go to College?,” npr.org, July 15, 2009

16. Erin Currier, “How Generation X Could Change the American Dream,” pewtrusts.org, Jan. 26, 2018

17. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Unemployment Rate 2.5 Percent for College Grads, 7.7 Percent for High School Dropouts, January 2017,” bls.gov, Feb. 7, 2017

18. Marcelina Hardy, “7 Bene�ts of Earning a College Degree,” education.yahoo.net, 2013

19. Sandy Baum, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Pays, “Education Pays 2010: The Bene�ts of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” collegeboard.com, 2010

20. Trade Schools, Colleges and Universities, “Should College Be Free? Pros, Cons, and Alternatives,” trade-schools.net (accessed Feb. 27, 2019)

21. Max Page and Dan Clawson, “It’s Time to Push for Free College,” nea.org (accessed Mar. 7, 2019)

22. College Board, “Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2018-2019,” trends.collegeboard.org (accessed Feb. 25, 2019)



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23. College Board, “Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time,” trends.collegeboard.org (accessed Feb. 25, 2019)

24. Matt Philips, “College in Sweden Is Free but Students Still Have a Ton of Debt. How Can That Be?,” qz.com, May 30, 2013

25. Bernie Sanders, “Summary for Sen. Sanders’ College for All Act,” sanders.senate.gov (accessed Mar. 4, 2019)

26. David H. Feldman and Robert B. Archibald, “Why Bernie Sanders’s Free College Plan Doesn’t Make Sense,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 22, 2016

27. Campaign for Free College Tuition, “How Expensive Is Free College for States?,” freecollegenow.org, Sep. 30, 2016

28. Neal McCluskey, “Should College Education Be Free?,” wsj.com, Mar. 20, 2018

29. US Department of Education, “College Affordability and Completion: Ensuring a Pathway to Opportunity,” ed.gov (accessed Mar. 14, 2019)

30. Emily Deruy, “Measuring College (Un)affordability,” theatlantic.com, Mar. 23, 2017

31. Hillary Hoffower, “College Is More Expensive Than It’s Ever Been, and the 5 Reasons Why Suggest It’s Only Going to Get Worse,” businessinsider.com, July 8, 2018

32. Sattler College, “Why Is College So Expensive?,” sattlercollege.org, Nov. 29, 2017

33. Earnest, “Why Is College So Expensive? 4 Trends Contributing to the Rising Cost of College?,” earnest.com (accessed Mar. 7, 2019)

34. Jack Chambless, “Clinton’s Free-College Nonsense Would Plunder Taxpayers, Dupe Students,” dallasnews.com, Aug. 2016

35. Jennifer E. Walsh, “Why States Should Abandon the ‘Free College’ Movement,” nationalreview.com, Mar. 19, 2018

36. Vince Norton, “Why Free College Is a Bad Idea,” nortonnorris.com, Mar. 16, 2018

37. Amy Sherman, “Was College Once Free in the United States, as Bernie Sanders Says?,” politifact.com, Feb. 9, 2016

38. Michael Stone, “What Happened When American States Tried Providing Tuition-Free College,” time.com, Apr. 4, 2016

39. Digest of Education Statistics, “Table 302.60. Percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds Enrolled in College, by Level of Institution and Sex and Race/Ethnicity of Student: 1970 through 2016,” nces.ed.gov (accessed Mar. 7, 2019)

40. Ashley Smith, “Obama Steps up to Push for Free,” insiderhighered.com, Sep. 9, 2015

41. College Promise Plan, “About Us,” collegepromise.org (accessed Mar. 4, 2019)

42. Edvisors, “Countries with Free or Nearly Free Tuition,” edvisors.com (accessed Feb. 21, 2019)



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43. Alanna Petroff, “New York Offers Free College Tuition. So Do These Countries,” money.cnn.com, Apr. 10, 2017

44. Lisa Goetz, “6 Countries with Virtually Free College Tuition,” investopedia.com, Feb. 12, 2019

45. Morning Consult and Politico, “National Tracking Poll #170911 September 14-17, 2017,” morningconsult.com, Sep. 2017

46. Elizabeth Warren, “The Affordability Crisis: Rescuing the Dream of College Education for the Working Class and Poor,” warren.senate.gov, June 10, 2015

47. Andrew Kreighbaum, “Free College Goes Mainstream,” insidehighered.com, Sep. 26, 2018

48. Sophie Quinton, “‘Free College’ Is Increasingly Popular — and Complicated for States,” pewtrusts.org, Mar. 5, 2019

49. National Center for Education Statistics, “Back to School Statistics,” nces.ed.gov (accessed Mar. 18, 2019)

50. Katie Lobosco, “6 Things to Know about Tuition-Free College,” money.cnn.com, Apr. 26, 2016

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