Could College be Free?

One of the largest topics for debate in national politics is college affordability. It’s on the minds of high school kids across the country–and rightfully so. The top three most expensive universities in the United States are Harvey Mudd College, Columbia University, and New York University, each costing just shy of $70,000 (room and board included) per year. Few families can afford to pay for their kids to attend such expensive schools. Unfortunately as a result, many people take out student loans, which places you in debt right out of college. In California, the average student debt is $21,382. The total national student debt is around one trillion dollars. Millions of Americans have unpaid student loans, and it takes years and years to pay them off.

This chart shows the amount spent by the federal government on higher education in 2013. The majority of money spent is on loans.

For some, the high cost of tuition makes college inaccessible. It is clear that something should be done to help those who want to pursue a higher education do so, even if they cannot afford it. The question is: should the government completely finance public college for all students? While this seems like an ideal situation to many students, it would cost the government a significant amount of money (a little over 60 billion dollars annually). In 2015, the federal government spent $100 billion dollars on the education department. This budget is not only for college education, but for grades kindergarten through twelfth as well. For the federal government to completely subsidize college tuition, they would have to almost double the education budget. The money could possibly come from reducing spending on the military, which makes up 16% of the budget and costs $600 billion annually. There are currently several government programs that help offset the cost of college, but they do not benefit the majority of incoming undergraduate students.

Only a small fraction (dark green) of the federal budget is allocated to education.

Completely subsidizing college is by no means a perfect or simple solution to the ever-increasing amount of student debt or the high cost of tuition. This decision requires serious economic deliberation. Considering this fact, any amount of investment in higher education is still important for the nation. With time, the investment will pay off as the young, educated graduates enter the workforce. The government could make room in its budget to help significantly subsidize public universities without committing to fully funding college for everyone. It is an asset to have educated people from all levels of income or social status. These factors should not hinder access to college. As a prospering nation, the United States only benefits from having a well-educated and informed population.

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