How much of a college education should be free?

Better put, how much of a college education should taxpayers cover?

  • Tuition
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Misc fees
  • Room
  • Board
  • Postgrad
  • Other

And should there be some sort of payback if a student chooses to party the semester away?

I’ll answer once I can think about the big picture. But I present you a chance to craft the perfect public higher education program.

The first two years should be free tuition and books at state schools. Not room and board, though.

If someone flunks out, ensuing semesters must be paid by the student.

These are really knee jerk opinions on my part. I want to help those who need it but recognize that there are budget limits. I just think the nation is stronger with an educated, good earning populace and believe that the benefits - including increased tax revenues - will make the policy a net positive.

I know someone who put himself through undergraduate through graduate and postgraduate school at Harvard without having to pay a dime. Why should a public school be worse?

(I do not imagine you keep your fellowship if you “party the semester away” though!)

Note: this is a digression, but for many people it is not that easy to get into a college or university in the first place, because they have been let down by abysmal primary and secondary education. It is important to note, though, lest some imagine we are discussing a communist utopia.

I think the current Norwegian system is pretty good:

Public universities are free, except for a symbolic “copy fee”.
There’s a national student loan bank for loans to cover books and living expenses. Part of the loan will be converted to a “scholarship” if you complete the education you got the loan for (and do so within the expected time). You get a bigger loan and scholarship if you’re not living at home. You get a bigger loan, but no additional scholarship if you go to a private university.

One importantish difference between the US and Norway though is that Norwegian kids have voluntary high school from grade 11-13, which can be vocational, so most of those who go to university do so at age 19 and are slightly more financially responsible.

At the very least, state schools should be effectively non-profit. How expensive is it really to provide an education when you own the land, buildings are paid for, you pay professors a pittance and adjuncts even less? I can get a degree in the UK as a foreign national for cheaper than in my own state.

Everyone should receive a voucher sufficient to cover four years of tuition at a public school in their state. The voucher could cover any accredited school, not just public ones. Private colleges could set their tuition at whatever level they choose; if it’s more than the voucher amount, then it’s up to the student (or the school or anyone who might choose to offer scholarships or whatever) to come up with the difference.

I’m not sure whether the voucher should cover books or not. Either way, there should be some other measures in place to control book prices and rein in some of the abuses of the textbook system. For instance, I’ve heard of professors writing their own textbook, charging an exorbitant amount for it, and then listing it as a “required text” for their classes, so as to rake in more income for themselves (which puts an extra cost on the student, and probably also leaves them with an inferior textbook).

Pretty expensive, but nothing a populous rich nation containing millions of taxpayers cannot afford, should that be a priority.

I question the idea that everybody needs college. Society needs plumbers, too, so skilled professions may not go to UCLA or whatever but they need a trade school maybe. But even at that, a friend of mine from high school tried junior college and it totally wasn’t his cuppa. He enjoyed stocking shelves, working as a short order cook, and so on. Maybe he should get a bonus, a lesser amount, but money that could have gotten him started in his adult life.

And of course some will take the loan and head to the beach rather than study—there was a thing on 60 Minutes years ago that decried just that. So I think there needs to be a good feedback loop. If you’re flunking freshman year, maybe you have to pay for the second try at that before the taxpayer springs for sophomore year. When you have your money on the line, you start questioning how serious you are about it.

That’s another thing…in the US, universities have become pretty expensive. Using a root calculator, I see my alma mater’s tuition has averaged increases of over 5 percent every year, and it’s a state school. Inflation can’t explain that away. They send an alumni mag and I see they bring in celebrities (who aren’t alums) for events, presumably bringing some prestige or something. It reminds me of how once upon a time, doctors and hospitals were affordable but then the profit motive came along…

And occasionally change a paragraph here and there to call it a “revised edition,” thereby stopping students from buying/selling used copies of the previous edition. Sometimes the library carried a copy or two, so you didn’t have to buy it. But it would be a reference book, so you could wait your turn for a chance to read it.

I think universal health care outranks it.

If you make a burger, how much does it cost you? You total up your supermarket bill and calculate the portion and divide, get a figure. McDonald’s or Burger King or Wendy’s makes a burger…how much does it cost? They don’t go to the supermarket. They have big contracts with producers and may raise their own cattle etc.

My GP got his M.D. by joining the army. Others do so by the more traditional route of taking out student loans etc. Can we not produce doctors (and nurses and medical researchers etc.) in a sort of middle ground that doesn’t require army service but doesn’t either require tons of loans? The requirement upon graduation is that you work where they put you for X amount of time. Maybe Podunk, Kansas doesn’t have a doctor. Maybe in Cleveland one inner city neighborhood needs a free clinic for the poor population. When COVID hit, where might we have sent these medical professionals?

AIUI by creating more supply, the competition should drive down some of the profiteering.

In general, making something completely free is a bad idea; it creates a cheapening attitude in people’s minds and they treat things carelessly.

Like healthcare, there ought to be a small fee, not so much for revenue’s sake as to discourage people from having an “abuse-what’s-free” attitude.

I would say none of the things listed in the OP should be “free,” but they should be reduced down to something like 1/10th the current price.

A few changed paragraphs wouldn’t stop anything. But then they also shuffle the order of the questions at the end of the chapter, so when the professor says “Your homework tonight is problems 4, 7, 11, and 23”, if you have the wrong edition you do the wrong problems.

(I did have a professor once who said “The second edition of this book is the best one, but it’s hard to find now that the third edition is current. Use either one as the textbook for this class”, and then found what the problem numbers he wanted were in both editions, for every homework. But that’s the exception, not the rule)

OK, I can maybe see an argument for that. I think I’d still prefer free, but I’d be overjoyed with a solution that brought the cost down by an order of magnitude.

Two years worth of state school should be completely free over the course of your lifetime - if you fail out, you should need to take a least a year off before you try again but you should be able to try again because 18 year olds can be really stupid.

A room and board stipend to cover those two years should be available and means tested because some people really need to work to live - and you can work part time and go to school - but its really hard to make enough money to live while doing that.

There should be no public aid whatsoever for for-profit schools - no subsidized loans, no grants. Loans given by private institutions for these schools should not be underwritten by the government and should be dischargeable in bankruptcy (honestly, all student loans should be, but that these aren’t is criminal)

Private non-profit schools should qualify for government backed loans. But only private grant money.

All high school juniors should be entitled to four hours of one on one post high school life counseling - whether that’s college focused or “you want to join the military” or just post high school life stuff focused on the next few years. All high school seniors should get an additional two hours. Additionally there should be maybe 20 hours that isn’t one on one.

Certain jobs that require four year degrees (social work, teaching) and are necessary to maintaining society need huge pay raises. That isn’t happening, so those careers need to have their debt waived - one year forgiven for each year served.

Not all costs are monetary. College costs a lot in terms of time and effort. It also costs you in terms of job experience if you don’t end up getting a job that requires your (or a) degree, but even if people don’t realize the latter, the vast majority aren’t going to spend several years in college just to enjoy a “freebee”.

Health care similarly has costs for the patient that aren’t money and countries with “free medicine” don’t have a substantial problem with people going to the doctor for “fun”. With the exception of a small fraction of relatively healthy, but bored and lonely octo- and nonagenarians who like chatting with the doctor regularly.

It depends, I think. I had classmates who said they were operating from a previous edition and got burned a few times. I guess it could be blame game, though.

And there are certainly some fields where updates make sense, but the basics of manipulating statistics (calculating z scores and such)? Some profs just want the revenue, I think.

I really like that idea. Some girls get pregnant young and going to college has to wait. And I bet some people think college would be a drag until they try their hand at the working world. But I also think an educated population is a good thing in and of itself and we shouldn’t disregard people who just want to learn. If my dad, who dropped out of school in 8th grade yet discovered and loved his telescopes, could have taken astronomy classes…

Not bad, but I wonder if we couldn’t somehow make it experiential. I’ve heard high school guidance counselors say that the majority of what they do is making student schedules. So if a student thinks he’s going to become a high school guidance counselor because he loves the idea of talking to kids about their problems…maybe shadowing a counselor for a week or two would give a better idea of what the job really is, whether he’d really like it. That way, you’re avoiding investing (both government money and the sincere student’s blood, sweat, and tears) all that for something the student doesn’t want.

Each state determines its own policies etc. WRT K-12 education. I think they have to do certain dances in order to get federal funding, and it’s not like one state has the same caliber education as the next. How would these proposed changes to college education work better, producing consistent results?

Additionally complicating things, according to this, New Jersey comes in at #1 for K-12, but only #27 for higher education.

I like this, and I’d add that any student receiving any aid (especially taking loans) should be required to attend a session with a financial counselor once a year, and maybe an broader information setting. So many kids take the maximum loans allowed, or don’t work in the summer because they don’t understand that reducing your loans makes a huge difference post-graduation. To an 18 year old, the difference between $40k and $60k in student debt seems almost trivial. Both are unimaginably large. But that extra $20k in debt compounds into a lot more before you are done. Living as poor as humanly possible, working in the summer and saving, and/or doing what it takes to graduate a semester or year early makes a huge difference in your options later. College kids could really benefit from someone looking over their expenses and income and expenditures and having a conversation about long term planning.

One thing that makes it complicated is that some kids really can live at home and some kids really can’t. Sometimes it’s a distance thing: if a kid doesn’t have a car and/or a resourced/supportive family, they have to live reasonably close. Two hours on public transportation each way is not really feasible. It’s setting a kid up to fail. And some kids have to leave home because their parents are abusive, or make going to school impossible (they will expect the kid to work). Finally, some kids have to leave home because there is really no room for them/parents can’t afford to feed them. On the other hand, some kids can quite easily live at home for 4 years. But if you finance moving out, everyone will want to, because that’s way cooler than living at home. And even means-testing it doesn’t really differentiate. A lot of it comes down to the family’s attitude about their child going to college.

Is there any truth to this? Of course you may have to deal with some stupid committee to decide what books to assign for some basic classes that wants a “commercial” book (that will be pirated anyway) instead of a copylefted book and/or a reader published under the aegis of fair use, and it’s one thing writing a book or notes that are good, and therefore popular, but who is in it purely for the revenue? Plus this can and should be counteracted by any responsible instructor by simply making sure the actual problems are up on a web page rather than merely references to problems.

See, though, it’s not really about aiming at a specific job. Half the jobs today will be replaced by a different job in 20 years. What a guidance counselor does at one school, one week, has little to do with what a guidance counselor will be doing in 10 years, when a high school junior could finally have that job (it takes 4 years of college + 3 years of classroom experience + master’s degree). Almost no one I know is really doing what they planned to do. In fact, ironically, the only people I know who are doing what they planned are teachers, which is why we suck ass at career guidance.

Career success is a weird combination of having a plan, but being very flexible about it, because you have to grab the opportunities that come your way. My mom’s whole career trajectory was transformed because as a young accountant, she was on a team installing a new database. She got her next job because they were installing the same program and she had experience with the changeover. For her next two jobs, she specifically approached companies that had recently purchased that product. Then she went and consulted for them directly, and then, finally she placed herself with one of their biggest customers. She hadn’t planned for any of that. She got her CPA when it was still double-entry. But she had a rough idea that she liked data and numbers and math, and whenever she had the opportunity to learn a new skill, she did–and leveraged that to learn even more skills.

That’s the kind of thinking that makes a person successful. It doesn’t really matter what the field is: you need to have interest and ambition and a plan, and then you have to be ready to follow up on opportunities. So I am highly suspect of any career planning training that focuses on matching kids up with specific jobs. That’s just not how it has actually worked for most of the people I know.

Do you have a cite for this kind of abusive attitude in places where healthcare or college is free?

All of that.

Well, there’s considerable variation. Of course the textbook publishers are in it to make a profit, and often the authors are, too, but in my experience most (not all, but most) professors have the best interests of their students at heart. In addition to the professor who said “use either edition of the book”, I also had another who said “There are two good textbooks for this subject, and this one costs $26, so that’s the one we’ll be using”, and yet a third who said “This is a very eclectic course, and there’s no one good textbook for it, so I wrote one that’s available for cost from the bookstore”.

Of course, my experience as a student is all quite out of date, now. Nowadays, most of the textbook publishers have online resources that go with the book, and some of them are quite good (beneficial to both the student and the teacher). And of course, those resources are only available to students with the subscription that comes with the book. It’s a way for the publishers to still get money from the students, and avoid all of the tricks students have for getting the content for free or cheap, but I can’t say that I mind it much, because you’re getting something worthwhile for that money. And while there are free alternatives, so far, most of them seem not to be as good as the paid ones. That might change eventually, because once something’s available for free it’ll remain available, but it’s slow, because making good content of that sort is a lot of work, and so the free stuff is only made as a hobby in folks’ free time, which is much slower than paid work.