On November 12, 2015, hundreds of college and high school campuses across the country will participate in the Million Student March, a national day of action led by students, alumni, campus workers and families as a response to the urgent higher education crisis. Over the past decade, public in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges have increased at an average rate of 3.4 percent per year, controlling for inflation. The average college graduate in the Class of 2015 has over $35,000 in debt. Even worse, this debt is not distributed equally; of the $1.2 trillion in total student debt held by over 40 million Americans, 58 percent of it is held by the lowest-income quartile. The demands of the Million Student March are simple: tuition-free public college, cancellation of all student debt and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers. Organizers at Cornell have added immediate divestment from fossil fuel corporations as a fourth point.
But what exactly does free college mean? Currently, there are three categories of benefits that students at public colleges receive: public loans, tuition subsidies and living grants. Many supporters of the free college movement point out that public loans are currently occupying too large of a portion of this benefit package. For presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, free college means only complete subsidization of tuition. For others, free college must also cover living costs. Many even believe that free college requires that students must be able to graduate with little or no debt.
If we focus just on eliminating tuition, the economic argument in favor of free college is straightforward — making four-year public colleges free is stunningly inexpensive. According to the Department of Education, American public colleges collected $62.6 billion in undergraduate tuition in 2012. This is less than 0.5 percent of the GDP. Data from the following year suggests that direct federal funding on financial aid (including various tax benefits and numerous grant programs) was notably higher than this at around $69 billion, even before accounting for student loan funding.
Over at least the past 45 years, the cost of Cornell’s tuition has increased much faster than the rate of inflation. In Germany, the UK, Canada, Chile and most European countries, post-secondary education is either free or provided at a very low cost. The strength of our workforce, both domestically and in an international context, depends the economic security of our workers. We cannot allow these rising cost trends to continue.
On the most basic level, a democratic society requires the participation of educated and informed citizens. So if free college is affordable, why haven’t we done it? The social benefits are harder to quantify, and it is often easier to think in terms of what will happen if these rising cost trends are allowed to continue. If nothing changes, post-secondary education may soon become an inherited privilege. College graduates, on average, earn higher incomes than non-graduates and also enjoy the benefits of expanded social networks and increased cultural skills that can act as predictors for future job market success. Since college graduates represent a disproportionately wealthier percentage of the population, gains are concentrated towards the top and this system will continue to perpetuate inequality.
The caveat to all this is that free college does not necessarily equate to college for all. The initial transfers will be to college students who are already disproportionately well-off compared to college-age people who are not currently enrolled. The class disparities in matriculation, college selection and current public benefit levels will not disappear if tuition disappears. It is obvious that eliminating tuition will mean giving more money to students from richer families who already benefit from the structural inequities of the American higher education system. It may also advance the false meritocracy narrative that students who have graduated from high school or obtained a GED are necessarily more qualified or more deserving than underperforming students who have faced more obstacles in their secondary education through no fault of their own.
Eliminating public tuition will not address the cost of room and board, textbook costs, food costs, relocation costs or the opportunity cost of not working. Cancellation of student debt will not benefit students and families who were subject to initial credit constraints and could not take out loans in the first place. A greater diversity of the class backgrounds of students attending college will not address the issue that four-year colleges are structurally designed so that the majority of benefits accrue to the most affluent, at least in the early stages of the policy change.
But the fundamental idea is that education should be a civic right, not a product. Students deserve free higher education not because they have worked hard and have somehow earned it through a successful navigation of an already-flawed education system, but because education is a public good that benefits us all. The commoditization of our education will not be tolerated. Rising income inequality cannot be combatted by increased access to education alone, but the benefits of a more-educated population clearly outweigh the costs. Free college is both economically feasible and morally imperative.
Cornell’s Million Student March will take place this Thursday at 3 p.m. on Ho Plaza.
Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Lunch usually appears alternate Mondays this semester.