If we can afford free K-12 education, why not a free college education?

Inspired by the one of the side topics of the thread on what conservatives have to fear. To start of with the obvious objection, when I say free, I mean free of tuition to the students. Of course someone is going to pay, just like the taxpayers pay for K-12 eduction. But I see no need to have the burden fall primarily on the students.

Objection 1. It’s more expensive than K-12. Yes, but it shouldn’t have to be that much more expensive. The professors don’t make that much more than public school K-12 teachers. Yes, there is more facilities that K-12 schools don’t have, such as a large library, labs, athletic facilities, etc. But I doubt that this adds so much to the cost that it can no longer be publicly sustainable.

Objection 2. Not everyone goes to college. True. So let’s cover other secondary forms of education as well, such as trade school, apprenticeships, etc.

Objection 3. What about private schools? Let them remain private. Students can attend on scholarship or pay themselves if they want to. If they are that much better than public schools, surely they’ll be able to compete. I say this as someone who attended a private university.

What say you all? What other objections am I overlooking? Why would this plan be doomed to failure?

There’s arguments to be made for publicly supported higher education but your question is akin to “if I can afford one car, why can’t I afford two?”

I think you’re wrong about the cost. According to NCES a public 4 year college costs $20K per student. There were 14.5 million college students in public college in 2018. So we’re looking at an annual cost of $290 billion or an increase of 6.5% of the federal budget that will primarily help 1/3 of the adult population. Though with it being free we’ll probably see more people take advantage but that will increase the costs too.

Deny the Premise

I’m not well versed in this subject, perhaps one of our resident educators can enlighten me, but I suspect the U.S. currently underfunds K-12 by billions, maybe tens of billions, each year.

Other countries like Germany or Iceland make education a priority and therefore can and do fully subsidize university education (unless I’m mistaken).


I agree that post high school education of all types should be included.

But I want to point out that free high school was available even when not everyone went to high school, or at least up through grade 12 when many went only through grade 10.

Also, some states have free tuition to community colleges for residents. I believe (but couldn’t easily find corroboration) that some states provide free university tuition to residents who meet certain academic standards.

Germany also tracks their students and only ~30% get to go to college while 60-70% of US students enroll in college. If we cut the college population in half and removed half of the colleges and their upkeep and maintenance costs we could cut this program down to $150B which is still huge but would certainly be more viable of course would benefit an even smaller portion of the country.

i agree with this as someone who went to a junior high school that was so neglected for so long that the federal government pretty much shut it down as a safety hazard 20 years after i left and most everyone thought it was 20 years too late … simply because by the time they got to it on the list most the money was spent

Are we talking free for two years, four years or what? How many people would stay in college for the higher degrees if cost wasn’t a factor any more? This might be major factor when it comes to figuring out the actual cost of such a program.

How much money do the administrators of colleges make?
How much do college atheletics cost?
Why do textbooks cost so much?
What do we do about students who attend college for the frat parties and don’t give a damn about grades?

Conservatism doesn’t stem from a fully realized, thought out set of ideas where they are rationally supported. It stems from resisting change, from thinking however things were during your formative years is the natural order of things and the way things are supposed to be.

Conservatives today will say “obviously high school should be free, that’s just the way things are, but free college is outrageous!”

But if we lived in an alternate history where it was considered normal for K-8 to be free, but you had to pay for high school, then those same people who are now saying that free high school is normal and appropriate would then be saying “of course K-8 should be free, but free high school is outrageous!”

It doesn’t stem from a rational analysis of why one thing is okay and one thing is not. One thing was the way it was, the way they feel it should be, and they will fight against changing that even if they cannot logically support holding that position.

When I was going to university, many of the professors did not want to teach. They had to as a requirement for keeping their job. One professor I worked with was delighted that he only had to teach one class that semester. I’ve had other professors who just read a presentation in a giant class. Of course some loved teaching, but there really wasn’t anything like a “full time teacher” there. The closest were grad students who worked as teaching assistants, leading labs and the like.

I think universities are research centers as well as teaching centers. The research is considered more important by many teachers, but students pay the bills. I do not know how this works at colleges though.

The public university in my city was mostly free* for many years - but free tuition lasted only a few years after open admissions** started. When I say it was free, I mean there was no tuition charge- it wasn’t a scholarship or a form of need-based financial aid.*** Three issues caused the end of free tuition - a fiscal crisis, which in turn caused the state to take over funding the 4 year colleges ( and the state already charged tuition at its public university) and open admissions caused enrollment to double. I’m not sure there is any country where college is free and everyone who graduates from secondary school can attend - as far as I can tell, most countries that provide free college educations either are selective in who gets admitted to college or start tracking students at an early age, so that a ten year old may get tracked into a vocational education that will leave her unprepared for college.

  • evening students paid tuition much earlier than day students, but the evening students were generally those not academically qualified for the day program.

** which guaranteed anyone graduating from high school in the city a seat at one of the colleges.
*** Something like 65% of students currently pay no tuition - but that’s because they receive financial aid that covers the tuition.

Good questions. Administrators grow in universities like a cancer. They do seem awfully busy but much of the busy work is interminable meetings with each other.

Intercollegiate athletics are another cancer. Two of them make money, at least in the major conferences.

When I was a student a typical textbooks cost $5 and you could buy them secondhand for half that. Multiply those amounts by 10 for inflation, but the $200 calculus text has the same calculus as the one I paid $2.50 for. Nowadays they do a new edition every year to kill the used book market.

The students who don’t give a damn about their marks should be thrown out. You are there to learn, not to party. If you can handle both, fine. If you cannot, tough shit.

When I started college in 1954, the year’s tuition at Penn, a private ivy, was $700. Corrected for inflation, say $7000. It’s current tuition is at least 8 times that. Why? I don’t know, but some guesses include too many (and too highly paid) administrators, too much spent on sports, on climbing walls, replacement of somewhat spartan dorms and meals by fancier ones and I am sure there are other factors as well. I believe they are also considerably more generous with scholarships, to be sure.

There is another factor. Back in the 50s, most of the professors taught 4 courses each term and if they could fit some research into their schedules, fine. By the 60s, all the leading private and state universities reduced the teaching load to 2 courses per term, but research had become an absolute requirement for tenure. Now I happen to think that research, even the purest, pays off eventually, but it should be made clear in the budget that a lot of the cost is for research and it should be budgeted accordingly. It should be noted that such research is also funded in Germany and France where university is free, AFAIK.

I believe the OP is talking about the US and nothing is more American than: “if I can afford one car, why can’t I afford two?”

We’re Exceptional that way.

I began college at the U of Ark at Little Rock in 1973. Text books were about $20 and up new. I believe they were changing text books even then. Tuition was $250, but I wasn’t taking a full load, as I was working and chasing women. Perhaps $75 per hour. I was offended that John Dean was paid to give a lecture. Somewhere in the school magazine files is a picture of me with my protest sign, but I digress.
UALR built some rather expensive dormitories, an I believe required Freshmen to live in them to cover the cost. That was after I graduated. They did seem hell bent on making money rather than educating people.

It’s theoretically possible, but the American public is tax adverse and is not likely to support additional taxes for free college. So even if it’s a good idea, it would have to be so phenomenal that people would support it even though they resist all kinds of taxes, including K-12 school taxes.

But if there was free college, it would not be free tuition at traditional colleges with sprawling campuses and on-site housing. It would likely be similar to K-12 schooling. And there already is a taxpayer-supported, low-cost college system like that. It’s called “community college”. And to the point you mention, most CC campuses aren’t luxurious with fancy labs, libraries, athletic facilities, etc. Many CC campuses are relatively simple like HS campuses minus the athletic fields. If the student lives at home, CC can be under $5000/yr. Although perhaps not free, the cost is low enough to be easily manageable by most graduates even if they have to finance 100% of the cost. With the cost of CC being relatively low as it is, making it free doesn’t really make it all that more accessible. Pretty much anyone can afford a CC education out-of-pocket or by taking on manageable loans.

The big issue is really that K-12 is at the local/state level, and universities are primarily state-level things, and we’re talking about them as if it’s all a huge Federal system.

The big concern I would have is kind of an extension of @filmore’s point- if everyone went to some kind of free college, it would likely just make graduate school play the role that undergraduate does now. Similar to how high school graduation used to be a big deal that actually meant something, whereas today, it’s virtually meaningless, except in the context of going on to college.

The value of college is in the scarcity not in the actual education in today’s society. It’s a sort of barrier to entry to a lot of jobs- they can filter out thousands of applicants by putting “Bachelor’s degree required” in the job description. Universal college would likely change that to “Master’s degree required”.

Looking for office administrator, MBA required. Job will primarily be answering phones and greeting guests when they arrive at the office.

Well, then the solution is simple. Merely give out free BAs. Everyone who graduates high school can apply and you just email it to them. Cheap!

And how many more lib arts grads do we need slinging McD’s.

Look, useful degrees like programming, medicine, law - hard degrees are fine, if they have jobs associated with them. When was the last time you saw a job for a philosopher specializing in Kant [now I have that stand up philsospher scene from Mel Brooks in my mind] last person I know who had a degree in Russian Lit worked with my brother in law at a coffee house, so as far as I am concerned, he should have gone to trade school and taken plumbing and heating.

What we need is to test kids in 8th grade, then if they test over a certain number, college, under, trade school. Make it about 33 percent for uni, the rest for trades. Then we might have enough plumbers, mechanics, tech tradesmen.