The Case for Free College
There are 19.9 million college students in the United States. Around seventy percent of them have taken out student loans and will graduate with about 30 thousand dollars in
debt each. The reason people go to college is that they can specialize in a field of their choosing and make a good living, but the debt that students are left with defeats this purpose.
The cost of college has more than tripled since the 1980s (after adjusting for inflation), and too many people cannot afford it, while it is almost impossible to get a job that pays the bills without higher education in today's world. Educating the future generations of America and equipping them with the necessary tools to find jobs is essential: For poverty levels to drop, and for the economy to improve, education and the opportunity to lead a better life must be accessible to every student in the country. Investing in education would allow the U.S. to produce quality goods and services, and would restore America to its former position as one of the world’s leading innovators in technology.
Every child—especially those who have had to worry about when their next meal would be, or where they would sleep—deserves to be educated. The government has the ability to pay for every student’s higher education, and it should. Free college would save money for students from middle and lower-class families, and it would ensure that students won’t have to struggle to pay back student loans.
A common argument against free college is that sufficient funding cannot be
reached without increasing taxes. This is correct, but anyone with an annual salary under $10,000,000, or about 99.99% of the United States population, would not see their taxes raised. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, one in five millionaires pays a lower tax rate than someone making 75 thousand dollars a year. The top 20 percent of Americans own almost 90 percent of the wealth in the country, but they are being taxed at almost the same rate as the bottom 80 percent, who own less than 11 percent of the wealth. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative of New York’s 14th Congressional District and a bastion of progressive ideals, has suggested a raised tax rate on anyone making over 10 million dollars annually. The tax would affect just 0.006% of Americans. Her tax plan would bring in 720 billion dollars over the next decade, which is nearly enough to finance a free college plan of 800 billion dollars over a decade.
Reallocating the remaining 80 billion dollars from the federal budget is a simple task. The Department of Defense receives about 705 billion dollars a year, an increase of more than 200 billion dollars since 2015. This major increase comes during peacetime when the United States is spending around thrice as much as China, the next biggest military spender. Taking 80 billion dollars away from the defense budget over 10 years (8 billion annually, or 11.3% of the Defense budget), would be a controversial decision, but it wouldn’t jeopardize the military dominance of the United States.
The money doesn’t even have to come solely from Defense. A substantial amount of money is lost every year to corporate tax evasion. For instance, Amazon paid $0 in federal income tax in 2017 and 2018, while making over 200 billion dollars in 2018. In fact, they received tax refunds in both of those years. In 2019, the company paid a federal income tax of just 1.2%, while the tax rate is supposed to be 21%. These corporations and banks also utilize offshore tax havens (any place with a low tax rate) to avoid paying tax to the United States. One leading New York bank has a whopping 31 billion dollars saved in 905 tax havens, and more than half of them are in the Cayman Islands, where the company has no banks. In 2015, American corporations had 2.1 trillion dollars stowed away in offshore tax-havens. All of that money would be able to pay four-year tuition for 16 million students at private colleges and universities. To put this number into perspective, just 5.1 million students attend a private college each year. The funding for free college is there, and anyone who is not part of the top 0.006% does not have to worry about a tax increase.
When such impactful changes are to be made, it’s important to know why the system is the way it is. The cost of attending university has skyrocketed over the last few decades. This is mostly due to the increasing need for job applicants to earn a college degree, which would increase even more if college were made free. Some worry that the increase in demand could leave the country without electricians, plumbers, construction workers, and people to do other hands-on jobs. It’s a reasonable fear, but there is a solution—vocational and technical high schools. These are high schools that equip students with technical skills, like mechanics, botany, and carpentry. Technical education allows students to go straight into work, rather than into college, where they would otherwise rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and lose years of work experience. Vocational schools have long been looked down on in the U.S., but they have been steadily on the rise, with most states having around 70 schools. Even the number of students opting to attend technical academies is increasing.
As these schools continue to grow, the government can aid their expansion with a federal grant. Since high schools typically cost around 70 million dollars to build, reallocating just seven billion dollars from the Department of Defense to the Department of Education would be enough to prop up two new technical high schools in each state every year. This reallocation gives students the choice to stay in a conventional high school and go on to college, or to go into a technical field without worrying about their financial stability in the future.
This revolutionary system would allow American students to explore many career paths, and to go into fields they are passionate about, which would also decrease depression and suicide rates in the country. A study by the University of Manchester finds that working at a job one is not passionate about is more detrimental to mental health than unemployment. Depression is in the top three most common workplace issues, and an unacceptably high percentage of workers with serious clinical depression commit suicide. In recent years, mental health has become a big political issue, and many people can be helped by giving them career opportunities in the field of their choice. This would also increase productivity in the workplace, which increases profits, and benefits the economy. The country collectively loses around 77 billion dollars each year from lost productivity, as well as treatment for workers with depression. Eliminating one big factor of depression could save the lives of future generations while lifting the American economy.
Free college is definitely achievable, but it still leaves the question: How do we know it will work? Well, it's already working in Europe. Norway has free college for its citizens. Half of their students attend conventional high schools and go into college, while half of them attend technical high schools. Norway ranks eleventh among countries with the highest income per capita, eight spots ahead of the United States. Norway also ranks fifth among the happiest countries in the world, behind four other European countries that also have free college. The United States is number 18. The Borgen Project states that Norway has a poverty rate of 7.5 percent. The United States sits at 14 percent. It also states that the top ten percent of Norwegians own 21 percent of the wealth, while income inequality in the U.S. is much worse. The top ten percent own 70 percent of the wealth in America. People living in countries with free college are much better off than American citizens.
So, to opponents of free college, I have a question: Why not? Why shouldn’t education be guaranteed to children of the 14 percent of American households living in poverty? Why shouldn’t homeless kids be given the tools to make their family’s future better than before? Why should children whose parents don’t have a college education or the money to pay for one be denied an opportunity to provide for their parents in the future? These people living under the poverty line are our society’s hardest workers, yet their paychecks don’t show anything for it. Free college is a cause that benefits every single American.
The reason people leave their homes behind to come to the United States is that they seek better opportunities not just for themselves, but for their children, and for their childrens’ children. If you were to ask an immigrant, like my own parents, why they left their homes behind, they would say the same thing. They come here believing they can get involved in and contribute to American society. They come here believing they have the chance to live the American dream. So let’s give them and all others who are forced to stay under the poverty line the chance to rise through the societal ranks. After all, this is the spirit on which our country is built. America is supposed to be for everyone, not just a few people at the top. This is why the Founding Fathers declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776.
It’s time for big corporations and wealthy Americans to invest in the people of the United States of America. We can still right the path and restore our society to the nation that the Framers imagined. So why not?