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For hundreds of years, people have been immigrating to America in hopes of achieving the “American Dream.” In broad terms, this dream may consist of immigrants leaving their home countries in hopes of freedom, equality, and financial/employment opportunity. The best way to achieve this dream is through education, something that Americans pride themselves on. Public education is offered for free to anyone through high school, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender. This sounds incredible; however, in this day and age, in order to get a decent job and salary, it is highly recommended that students continue their education beyond high school. The only problem with this, though, is that higher education is expensive, which not only makes it difficult for lower-class families to achieve this goal, but the price has gotten so high that now it is even difficult for middle-class families to afford.
The cost of tuition has risen faster than the rate of inflation. For example, in 1971, the cost of Harvard’s tuition was $2,600, and today, the cost is $45, 278. If it had risen with the rate of inflation, it would have been $15,189 today (Shoen). In the most recent presidential election, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party brought about the idea of free tuition. With student debt at an all-time high of $1.3 trillion (Shoen), this idea could not be better. With countries in Europe already successfully offering free tuition, it is easy to assume that America can simply follow. Unfortunately, where free tuition works in Europe, it could not work in America, but something needs to be done to lower the cost.
How it works
This concept of free tuition in America came to light in the recent election. Democrat Bernie Sanders originally came up with the idea of free tuition for all citizens; however, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton loosely devised a plan for free in-state tuition for families with an income less than $125,000 (Carey). At first glance, it would be easy to agree that free college would be great for the lower and middle classes. Those less fortunate would be able to achieve what they normally would not have been able to. Not only that, but students would not need to take out student loans and therefore would not have years’ worth of debt to pay off right out of college. Among the problems that come along with this plan, one main one is that each state is in charge of education, whether it is the course requirement or funding (Carey). Therefore, enforcing free tuition would be difficult unless great incentives were offered. In addition, this plan would end up costing an extra $100 billion per decade due to accommodating for new students through larger/more classrooms, dorms, and professors (Carey). Also, the plan would not necessarily mean that college would be “free”—the money would simply be shifted from students to taxpayers (Jackson). How would this happen? Either funding would be shifted from other programs, or taxes would be raised.
The shift in taxes is where European countries and America begin to differ in the concept of free tuition. Dating back to the American Revolution, and especially the Boston Tea Party, Americans have never really been a huge fan of taxes. However, in the European countries that offer free tuition, their taxes are significantly higher than in America. For example, in Germany, the total amount of a citizen’s income that is taxed is 49.3%, whereas in America, the amount is at 31.5% (Jackson). That is a very significant difference. In another example, Norway, which offers free education, has higher taxes, yet the government actually spends less per student (Baird). Katie Baird found that the American government spends an average of $30,000 per student per year which is, “twice the average of other rich democracies,” including Norway, which spends an average of $20,000 per student per year.
It’s a wonder why America is spending more per student than a country that offers free tuition. One reason for this could be the setup of America’s educational system compared to these countries. In Germany, fewer students actually attend college. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 45% of American students continue to receive a college education after high school, whereas in Germany, only 30% of students continue on to college (Klein). The difference lies in the way Germans and Americans view higher education. In America, it’s highly stereotyped that if a person does not receive a college education, they will be stuck working minimum wage jobs with a low standard of living. High schools tend to concentrate more on what will get students into college instead of focusing on other options such as the military, apprenticeships, and community colleges.
European countries, and more specifically Germany, “rely on a range of strategies to increase the odds that the 60 percent who don’t go to college nonetheless end up well-educated, with good job prospects and reasonable earnings,” (Baird). They do this by offering a vocational track in high school (Baird). This track focuses on teaching students labor market skills so that if college is not the right choice for a particular student, they still have the opportunity to make a career out of much-needed and maybe even undesirable jobs such as transportation or childcare, among others (Baird). With this outlook on vocational training, more students with just a high school degree are employed in Germany than in America. This may not directly help with the cost of tuition, but it helps with the rate of unemployment and the decreasing need and dependence on a college degree. Therefore, while free tuition may be difficult to implement in America, there could still be hope for those unable to afford it.
Alongside the differing importance of a college degree, the college experience is overall different in European countries compared to America. In America, college is a person’s chance to move away from home but not be fully independent. This involves living in a dorm with a roommate, having a meal plan, being a full-time student, and still somewhat depending on family for financial support. In addition, students attend college not only for educational benefits but also for social benefits. This includes a variety of extracurricular activities, student centers, sports, and clubs. Conversely, German colleges have a different outlook on how college life should be. A four-year college or university in Germany is a lot more similar to how Americans view community college.
Students live at home with their families and commute to school (Klein). Karin Klein describes it as “like going to community college for four years. Team sports are barely a blip on the scene. Student centers for socializing and gyms for exercise are missing. Extracurricular offerings are thin,” which is different from how Americans imagine college.
Not only is the social aspect different, but so is the education, or more specifically the classroom aspect. In America, students have advisors or counselors to help plan out classes. Americans also thrive on small classes for more interaction and for building a relationship with their professors. In Germany, this is a lot more difficult due to large class sizes and because professors have more students and teach more classes (Klein). This means that students get less one-on-one time with their professor, or less in-class discussion, which could, theoretically, result in students receiving less help and finding it difficult to get in touch with their professor. Because of the large classes too, German students are for the most part graded simply on the final and maybe a midterm (Klein). Small assignments are possible but rare. Therefore, if a student does not understand the material, it is difficult to know because they have no small assignments to base it off. Klein also describes this difference by characterizing colleges in America as “seen as producing students with deeper skills in critical thinking and creative problem-solving,” due to students being more involved in lectures, discussions, and projects.
It would be difficult to change these aspects of the American education system that differentiate why free tuition works in Europe but not in America. Therefore, America should work on simply lowering the cost of tuition in order to allow those less fortunate to achieve what they wish to achieve. The easiest way to do so is to look at what is causing this issue of the high cost of tuition and then consider alternatives. The cause of the rise in tuition cannot be placed on one factor alone. One factor is the fact that while students are competing to get into the best colleges, colleges are competing to get the best students. The best way to do this is by spending on the best professors, dorms, and amenities (Shoen).
Another critical reason is that due to the recession in 2007, most states cut back on education funding to focus on other programs to get the economy back on its feet, so colleges’ response was to increase tuition to make up for lack of funding (Shoen). yet another reason is that colleges decide tuition based on what the wealthy can afford. Colleges do this because then the wealthy will spend more and federal aid, scholarships, and Pell Grants will take care of the rest of the less wealthy students (Shoen). The issue with this is that over the last few decades the wealth gap has increased and so has tuition, so now federal aid and scholarships still cannot cover the total cost (Shoen). All three of these problems can have solutions though because the biggest problem is when students have to take out student loans, which causes them to be in debt.
With the problems discussed, there are alternatives to free college that will not only help lower the cost, but also help more people afford tuition. These alternatives can range anywhere from placing more emphasis on non-college education such as vocational training, trade schools, or apprenticeships, to offering tax write-offs for parents who start a college savings account for their children. However, something needs to be done about this issue. The cost of tuition affects the country as a whole, impacting parents of college students, students themselves, and parents planning for their children’s or future children’s college education. A college degree has somewhat become the new high school diploma, and it seems almost necessary for success (Shoen). It is not fair, though, that something so essential has become so expensive that not everyone can attain it. Therefore, the importance should be de-emphasized or the cost should be significantly reduced. Free tuition would not work in America for numerous reasons, particularly when compared to European countries. However, in a country where achieving a college degree is necessary, free tuition could devalue a college degree.
That could set the precedent for a slippery slope where the expectations would evolve into needing a master’s degree, a doctorate, etc. An additional issue arising from the necessity of a college degree is that most people don’t think twice about the cost. They’re aware that it’s expensive and they may not be able to afford it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for students. High schools should work towards educating students and parents about alternative, less expensive options post-high school. They should also inform parents and students that if they can’t afford the cost of colleges upfront, there are options like Pell Grants, financial aid, and scholarships allowing students to still reach their goals of college attendance. This, however, requires commitment to achieve good grades in high school. If schools fail to do this, then it is up to students to conduct their own research. With enough research and a greater number of people educated on this topic, Americans can work together to bring this issue to politicians’ attention and demand lower prices. It’s easy to assume that free tuition is ideal, but once a person examines the facts and figures, it becomes apparent that it’s not as great as it seems.
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