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The Continuing Myth of a Free College Education

AUGUST 2, 2016

During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton proposed the idea of debt-free college to counter a popular refrain from Bernie Sanders that public colleges should be tuition-free.  Since winning the nomination, she has been moving closer to some of Sanders' proposals in an effort to reach his voters.  One of these ideas included free college, with some adjustments to the Sanders plan (namely, an income cutoff of $125,000).

College affordability is still an important issue in this presidential election, with young voters and their parents increasingly frustrated with rising tuition costs.  The idea of free college is quite appealing in a day and age when economic success frequently depends on education after high school.  The free tuition plan was among a number of ideas that Clinton shared in her acceptance speech in Philadelphia.

However, Clinton's proposal still lacks many necessary specifics and suffers from some of the same problems that higher education experts pointed out in the Sanders' plan months ago.  The primary problem is that tuition costs at public institutions are primarily controlled by the states and are a direct result of how much money lawmakers dedicate to higher education.  Any free tuition plan requires states to pitch in, and this has now worked well with the Affordable Care Act and many other Obama initiatives.  Furthermore, this fee college education plan is largely silent on what happens to students who go to private institutions.  

 While I have always been a strong advocate of student financial aid being available to needy students at the state and federal level, students and their families should be prepared to cover part of the cost for a college education.  It may even help to develop financial responsibility.  Students are far move likely to achieve academic success and demonstrate responsibility if they have to contribute something to their education.  They need to have "some skin in the game."

Finally, in case one has not been paying attention to the national debt, it has increased from nine trillion to almost twenty trillion dollars in the past eight years.  Surely, the federal government cannot cover the cost for a free college education.  There has to be a limit to federal spending including the funds that are made available for higher education.

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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