On August 1st, essay supplements for colleges were released. It’s time. The 2022 college admissions process has officially begun. While children of the wealthy fly across the country looking at expensive, prestigious Ivy leagues to commit to, this is not the reality for most. Many of us spend hours applying for scholarships, worrying about student loans and how our parents will pay for college while making $50,000 a year. We make sacrifices. We give up our dream college for the school which offers the most aid. And some of us forgo our dream of going to college at all. The reality of the situation is this: The vast majority of Americans cannot afford to pay for college.
The pandemic, and the job loss that accompanied it, has further jeopardized the college aspirations of many students. Fewer students are going to college because of financial issues. According to a CNBC survey of high schoolers from March 2021, the likelihood of attending a four-year school decreased almost 20% in the past eight months, mostly due to high costs. The College Board found that tuition and fees plus room and board for a private college averaged $50,770 in the 2020-21 school year; at in-state public colleges, it was $22,180. Additionally, the Princeton Review reported that for college-bound students and their parents, 98% of families said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college and 82% said it was “extremely” or “very” necessary. Clearly, college is not affordable. With costs soaring and almost all college-bound students needing financial help in paying for college, it is obvious that a new system must be implemented.
Public college should be free, for a few reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly: Universal free college will help battle inequity in the United States. It will allow thousands of lower-income students and students of color to pursue higher education. In our current system, college magnifies the systemic inequality that is endemic in this country. Children of the wealthy are able to pursue a college education, usually debt-free. This has several implications: first, people who leave college with debt, generally from lower-income families, immediately take on work which will help pay off debt. This acts as a barrier to participating in graduate education and accessing careers that are especially lucrative and would launch them into the upper middle class.
Secondly, lower-income children will often choose college based on financial aid, and not on the highest college they are eligible for according to their achievement. This means that they often access colleges of lower quality than they qualify for. In a society that prides itself on values of meritocracy and hard work, the essence of the “American dream,” why is it tolerated that socioeconomic status may be a barrier to someone who has both the merit and work ethic to do better? Moreover, the lack of access and therefore participation of less wealthy students in professions such as medicine and law also means that well-meaning individuals who are in these professions are still compounding the disparities and inequality that exist in access to healthcare and legal representation. And this brings me to another reason why we need free public college: It is not only for the individuals who go to college but also what these people bring back to their communities, how they uplift them and break the barriers which characterize a society rampant with social inequality. Allowing for free public college allows better representation for lower-income families across the vertical strata of public life, from the highest level job to the lowest, in a way that ensures that policies made and practices adopted cater to the needs of all people, not just the wealthy.
And finally, another reason for free public college is to ensure the continued competitiveness of the U.S. economy. At present we are not leveraging to its full extent the talents of a significant portion of our population by placing financial barriers on their ability to excel. Removing these barriers allows us to tap into the brightest and most innovative minds in the country. A significant portion of these may reside within families that cannot afford college debt, or who then compromise their post-college creativity by taking on jobs that will help pay student loans, but do not necessarily enable them to do their best work.
Of course, there is massive opposition to free college, even among Democratic politicians. For example, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg both argue that free public college is wasteful because students from wealthy families who are fully able to afford tuition will disproportionately benefit from it since they are more likely to attend college. Although this has some validity, the reason why higher-income families attend college at higher rates is because they can afford it. Universal free college would allow lower-income students to attend college. Additionally, according to Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, with free college in place, families in the top 1% would make up 1.4% of spending on free college. This is slightly regressive, but not a huge price to pay for the 98.6% that would benefit everyone else. Also, under Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren’s plan, increased taxes on the rich would help more than cover this cost.
Right now, making college access equitable in this country seems like an uphill struggle against the systems that are in place to ensure concentration of wealth and influence. In a country where people debate on whether or not to get a life-saving vaccine, I don’t have much hope for universal free college. Still, it is imperative for us as young people to keep advocating for the idea of free public college and to elect people who will support it. Only when people have had a chance to socialize and grow comfortable with the idea, will they realize that not only is this highly desirable but also necessary for both social stability, equality, as well as continued competitiveness of the U.S.